Bayside, Queens Activist Spurs Ackerman Letter to Obama
February 9, 2012
Congressman urges President to recognize role of slaves who built the White House
U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-Queens/L.I.) today sent a letter to President Barack Obama urging him to recognize the contributions ofenslaved African-Americans who helped build the White House. The Congressman sent the letter after consulting with Mr. Mandingo Tshaka, an activist from Bayside, Queens whom Ackerman honored in Washington, D.C a year and a half ago for shedding light on the role that slaves played in the construction of the U.S. Capitol. Ackerman brought Tshaka to the Capitol in June 2010 for a special ceremony in which plaques were unveiled to commemorate the contributions of slaves who built the structure.
Tshaka recently asked Ackerman to investigate whether slaves also built the White House, and the Congressman found after looking into the matter, that enslaved African-Americans did play a vital role in constructing the building.
In his correspondence, Ackerman urged the President to recognize the role of slave labor by displaying an appropriate acknowledgement in a public area of the White House.
“It was a shameful omission that visitors to the Capitol could tour the building to learn its history but not learn that slave labor was used in its construction,” said Ackerman. “I’m proud Congress took action to correct this failure and I now urge the White House follow suit.”
The Congressman learned that slaves helped dig the foundation for the White House, quarried stone used for the building’s walls, cut timber, sawed lumber and performed carpentry duties. In addition, slaves served on the White House domestic staff from 1800 through the Civil War.
The plaques unveiled by Congress in 2010 are now displayed outside of the House and Senate visitor galleries.
The following is the text of Ackerman’s letter to the President. A hard copy of the correspondence can be found here.
Dear President Obama:
I write to request your help in recognizing the contribution of enslaved African-Americans who helped build the White House. In one of our history’s tragic ironies, slaves helped build the capital of the free world. From the U.S. Capitol Building to the White House, our national symbols that represent freedom to so many of us, were built by people who were anything but free. While the larger injustice of slavery can never be adequately corrected, the continuing failure of properly informing visitors to Washington of the history of slaves building our national structures—including the White House—should be remedied.
In July, I was proud to join a bipartisan group of Members of Congress that dedicated plaques placed outside the House of Representatives’ visitor galleries to properly inform visitors of the role slave labor played in constructing the Capitol building. I was also proud that a section of the Capitol Visitors Center was named Emancipation Hall to honor the contributions of slave labor. These injustices were first called to my attention by my constituent, Mandingo Tshaka. It is long past time that similar measure also be taken in the White House to inform its visitors of the role slaved labor played in constructing the Executive Mansion.
Slaves helped dig the foundation for the White House. They quarried stone that would be used for the walls, dug up clay for thousands of bricks, cut timber, sawed lumber, and performed carpentry inside the White House. Even after White House construction was completed, slaves continued to support White House operations. Slaves served in White House domestic staff from 1800 through the Civil War.
While slavery is no moment worthy of national pride, the American way has always been to acknowledge our wrongs and constantly strive for better. It is wrong not to acknowledge wrongs. An acknowledgment of the role of slave labor displayed in the White House would be an important symbol that the United States does not run from its history, but rather learns from it. That is something of which all Americans can be proud.
I urge you to take steps to have an appropriate representation acknowledging the role of slave labor in constructing the White House in an area of public viewing.
Gary L. Ackerman
Member of Congress