President-elect Barack Obama created rousing and historic images during the home-coming portion of his rite-of-passage, when the nation’s first African-American president walked into the White House, a home built largely by black slaves.
The essence of his repeated catch-phrase, “This is our moment!” had a hint of irony as the president-elect passed down hallowed halls of freedom raised with the help of ebony hands callused by bondage.
Construction began on the White House and surrounding government buildings in 1792 on land ceded by two slave states, Virginia and Maryland. The location influenced the choice of laborers hired to construct the President’s Home, according to the African-American timeline on the official White House Historical Society’s Web site.
In an early-American spin on modern-day outsourcing, commissioners charged with building the White House and other capital buildings, originally planned to import craftsmen from Europe, but response was dismal.
“They turned to African Americans — slave and free –- to provide the bulk of labor that built the White House, the United States Capitol, and other early government buildings,” according to the historical society.
Unfortunately, many individual accomplishments of the black builders were lost to history. A historical society image of a “Carpenter’s Roll for the President’s House,” reveals a wage roll that lists five slaves only as “Tom,” “Peter,” “Ben,” “Harry” and “Daniel,” three of them slaves owned by White House architect James Hoban.
The role of slaves was, however, critical to the completion of the presidents’ home. Their efforts are literally etched in the foundation and fabric of the structure.
At the time, Washington, D.C. was undeveloped and too remote to ship in finished building materials, including lumber, bricks, hardware, and nails. Instead, black quarrymen, sawyers, brickmakers, and carpenters fashioned raw materials into building products.
On-the-job training came from the development’s master stonemason, Collen Williamson, who trained slaves at a government stone quarry at Aquia, VA. There slaves quarried and cut rough stone that was later dressed and laid by Scottish stonecutters as part of the walls of the White House.
“Free and slave blacks burnt bricks used to line the stone walls in temporary ricks on the President’s House grounds. Often working seven days a week, during the high construction summer months, alongside white workers and artisans (many of them Europeans who had not obtained citizenship), black laborers proved vital to the work force that created both the White House and U.S. Capitol,” according to the historical society.
Once the White House was constructed, slaves continued to work in the house as servants for presidents until the 1850s and the administration of James Buchanan who preferred British and European servants.
In the 1860s, during Abraham Lincoln’s administration, blacks returned to the White House, but not as slaves working as servants. One freed slave was Elizabeth Keckley, who purchased her freedom and served as First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln’s seamstress and, ultimately, confidante.
When President-elect Obama is in The House after inauguration in January, he’ll preside over a 132-room mansion where First Lady Michelle, as is tradition, gets to perform some do-overs and First Kids Malia and Sasha can likewise draw on the walls. First Kids get to decorate their rooms anyway they please, while First Mom and Pop must follow strict preservation guidelines in limited areas.
What’s in the Obamas’ new home?
Wikipedia.com reports, the White House, sits on an 18-acre compound and:
• The White House goes up four stories — the Ground Floor, State Floor, Second Floor, and Third Floor and down two to a bi-level basement.
• The centrally located Executive Residence, where the First Family lives and hosts ceremonies and official entertainment events. It includes the Entrance Hall, Grand Staircase and East Room, the White House Solarium, Game Room, and a sitting room currently serving as President George W. Bush’s workout room.
• The West Wing is the location of the Oval Office (the president’s office), White House Situation Room, James S. Brady Press Briefing Room, Cabinet Room, and Roosevelt Room.
• The East Wing includes the Office of the First Lady and the White House Social Secretary Office; the executive offices of the President and Vice President. An underground bunker built during World War II, is the Presidential Emergency Operations Center.
According to the White House’s own wiki, the 55,000-square-foot mansion includes 35 bathrooms, 412 doors, 147 windows, 28 fireplaces, 8 staircases, and 3 elevators.
Five full-time chefs work a galley that can serve dinner to as many as 140 guests and hors d’oeuvres to more than 1,000.
Landscaping includes a host of gardens, parks and outdoor event areas, including the South Lawn, used for the Easter Egg Roll and the Rose Garden, site of the annual turkey pardoning. Flora includes tulips, hyacinths and chrysanthemums in the East Garden and magnolia trees, Katherine crab apple trees and, of course, a variety of roses in the Rose Garden.
For recreation, there’s a tennis court, jogging track, swimming pool, movie theater, and bowling lane.
Rumor has it, hoops-playing Obama, may put himself at the top of the key with a basketball court addition and some major technological upgrades to continue his digital dance with history.