On this dayJul 26, 2016

Michelle Obama Says White House "Built by Slaves," Sparking Backlash

Image | White House Historical Association

In a speech at the Democratic National Convention on July 25, 2016, First Lady Michelle Obama reflected on America’s history. “The story of this country, the story that has brought me to this stage tonight, the story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation” she explained, “is the story of striving and hoping and doing what needed to be done so that today I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.”

Mrs. Obama’s remarks were immediately met with derision from some Republican figures on social media, including several who questioned the truth of her claim that enslaved people built the White House. A conservative blog remarked that Mrs. Obama’s statement showed “the disdain she has for America,” while commentator Michelle Malkin accused Mrs. Obama of “stretch[ing] the truth.” FOX News television host Bill O’Reilly admitted the statement was fact, but insisted, “slaves that worked [at the White House] were well-fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government.”

According to the White House Historical Association, when construction on the White House began in 1792, the labor force included enslaved black people who worked to dig the building’s foundation and chop stone for the walls. But in many ways, objections to Mrs. Obama’s statements were an attempt to avoid the truth, not reveal it. The effort to reduce American slavery to a benign, romantic institution is a deeply rooted tradition.

Soon after the Civil War, Confederate veterans and their supporters sought to recast the war as a noble fight for states’ rights that had nothing to do with slavery. They also tried to insist that enslaved people were happy, loyal, and content. In reality, evidenced by plentiful first-person narratives left behind by black people who lived through the ordeal, American slavery was always dehumanizing and barbaric, and often bloody, brutal, and violent. The effort to deny these truths continues a historical effort to deny black humanity.

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