“The D.C. commissioners, charged by Congress with building the new city under the direction of the president, initially planned to import workers from Europe to meet their labor needs. However, response to recruitment was dismal and soon they turned to African American—enslaved and free—to provide the bulk of labor that built the White House, the United States Capitol, and other early government buildings.
Stonemason Collen Williamson trained enslaved people on the spot at the government’s quarry at Aquia, Virginia. Enslaved people quarried and cut the rough stone.
Momentum grows to recognize slaves who helped build Washington
In George Washingtons day, slaves rented out by Maryland and Virginia farmers for $5 a month held many of the federal construction jobs in the new capital. Visitors 200 years ago wrote of the irony of slaves building the first temples of freedom, the Capitol and what was then called Presidents House. But that history had nearly died until last month, when leaders in the House of Representatives and Senate, in a bipartisan moment, approved a task force to recognize the slaves role.
Roughly half the slaves in the United States lived in Virginia and Maryland at that time, and farmers often rented them out in the off-season.
Thomas Jefferson, whom Washington named a commissioner in the city’s construction, favored slave labor because it was cheaper, according to Hotaling. In any event, Jefferson’s three-member commission authorized hiring up to 100 slaves a year to work on the capital’s first two big construction projects.
The slaves lived in huts on the Capitol and White House grounds and, according to Walter Hill, the National Archives’ specialist in African-American history, were fed pork, beef and corn bread
The slaves lived in huts on the Capitol and White House grounds
The records confirm that slaves did much of the brick-making, hauling, foundation-digging, masonry, nail-making and carpentry. Slaves rough-cut the sandstone and managed the quarry at Aquia Creek, Va., 40 miles south of Washington, from which the stone was shipped up the Potomac River on shallow-draft boats. Slaves also felled the oak used in the government construction projects and cut it at a slave-managed mill on the edge of White Oak Swamp near Richmond, Va.
Hotaling, counting slaves working at the Virginia quarry, forest and sawmill, estimated that roughly 400 of the 650 workers on the capital’s first two big projects were slaves.