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America, the House That Slavery Built

By minimizing how we talk about slavery, we ignore its profound impact on the development of the American economy.
White House.

When Michelle Obama said in her speech at the Democratic National Convention, “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves,” she no doubt meant to inspire and unify the audience by emphasizing the progress the nation has made.

And, judging by social media and the DNC crowd reaction, it did. But there was also a visceral response voiced by many others. Some people, like media personality Bill O’Reilly, rushed to deny or downplay the role of slavery in the White House’s construction and the level of brutality and exploitation involved in forced labor. The facts, substantiated by the National Archives, speak for themselves. But the real puzzle is why the First Lady’s herald of the contributions of enslaved people sent so many people reeling one way or the other at all. And, more importantly, why was there even a need to fact check something that we should already know: Through forced labor and their very existence, generations of enslaved Africans played an integral part in building the land of freedom and opportunity.

Chattel slavery is such a painful part of American history that we have yet to give the subject proper airtime in our national conversations and classrooms. Some of us would rather forgo authentic discussions and suppress scholarship about the sins of our forefathers to avoid inciting feelings of guilt and obligation. There are other folks who claim there is a finite breach between that woeful 250-year expanse in our nation’s childhood and a period that forged a global role model for democracy and economic growth. Silence and half-truths work to protect a national secret and a false image. And, like all horrible secrets, the power to perpetuate shame and guilt is diminished with release of the truth.

The real story — the one we Americans don’t advertise — is that we didn’t emerge from the ashes of the early 20th-century conflicts as a superpower. Nor did we build our might solely from the muscles of Ellis Island. By the beginning of the 19th century, enslaved labor had systematically both directly and indirectly turned the United States into one of the top two economic powers in the world. Later, despite the ravages of the Civil War, the capital and infrastructure extracted from the souls, sweat, and blood of enslaved African Americans positioned a former backwater colony to navigate the Industrial Revolution. In 1880 — not 1917 or 1945 — the U.S. began to supersede its much older and more established rival, Great Britain. The shores of the U.S., in the following decades, became a global beacon for economic opportunity and freedom to over 12 million new arrivals.

If we gave the two-and-a-half centuries of U.S. slavery the same scholarly attention as European feudalism and the Industrial Revolution, we could talk today about important threads running through our national and world history. And if those conversations could explore the economic facets of slavery, we could see that slavery was a critical factor in the economic growth of the U.S. and the rise of global capitalism.

Unfortunately, the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and chattel slavery in the Americas are, however, not taught and studied as an integral part of world economic history. These historic systems are often erroneously reduced to a social institution that benefited only a few inhumane families in the Mississippi Valley, and thereby accredited to a small part largely culminating with the the Civil War.

U.S. slavery was not a Southern gentlemen’s perk. As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in his article “The Case for Reparations” in The Atlantic, “by 1840, cotton produced by slave labor constituted 59 percent of the country’s exports.” The economic contribution of enslaved Americans, nonetheless, did not begin and end with King Cotton in the South. Northern colonies benefited from the slave trade, too, beginning with the Puritans. Slavery and the commerce activity brought by the slave ships passing through New England ports in early America grew the region’s nascent economy and, ultimately, advanced the spread of North American colonization beyond the earliest settlements.

There is another rarely discussed aspect of slavery that helped form our nation’s global economic footprint. The estimated market value of the enslaved population by 1860 had reached seven times the value of currency in circulation. When a slaveholder needed cash, he had three options: 1) rent out the labor of a person he held in bondage; 2) sell that enslaved person to someone else; or 3) maximize profits by leveraging the enslaved person as highly liquid collateral against loans to finance wealth-increasing activities. Enslaved humans, therefore, boosted the economy not only with their labor, but by living and breathing as relatively liquid assets. Businesses were established and goods were made using people in bondage as collateral. So even when Great Emancipation came, the formerly enslaved still maintained a stake in the economy that was purchased with their very lives.

The value of human collateral wasn’t only exploited by plantation owners and farmers; institutions that control our markets and society to this day, such as banks like J.P. Morgan Chase and Ivy League universities like Yale, profited handsomely. Collateral could create new money through the issuance of loans. Collateral (and slave labor, of course) could make new construction happen before there was cash in hand. Furthermore, the need to protect human capital-based wealth, according to Columbia University Professor Suresh Naidu, helped to give rise “to a modern and sophisticated system of property rights and financial contracts.” Thus, the legal frameworks of capitalism as it exists in the U.S. came out of the interests of those who held people in bondage for profit.

The White House is the cherry at the top of a long list of iconic symbols of U.S. political, cultural, and economic dominance created with enslaved labor. In the National Archives in the Library of Congress, there are receipts to show that 400 enslaved workers, on loan from plantations in surrounding areas, worked on the construction team for the Capitol. Smithsonian Castle was erected with rock liberated from the Earth by enslaved hands. The institution’s administrators still try to downplay this fact with coded language to this day. It is no wonder then, that a black American first lady’s attempt to re-claim this part of her heritage, our heritage, was met with outrage from some.

Again, as with the flow of human capital, the imprint of enslaved labor on national landmarks and public works extended far above the Mason Dixon line. New York City, the center of the U.S. slavery economy for over 200 years and still the financial epicenter of the world, was built up from the ground with labor, money, and human collateral from slavery. Enslaved people worked to create places tied to our financial history like Wall Street and South Street Seaport (which served as a slave trading market). And Trinity Church, a symbol of freedom and hope since September 11, was constructed, like the White House, by enslaved workers.

Bluntly, in our fascination with the mythology of bootstrapping heroes, it’s too jarring to acknowledge that millions of enslaved black Americans were the boots and the strap of our economic system. We want to avert our eyes from this aspect of our history; but perhaps we know in our collective subconscious we cannot separate our proclaimed status as the greatest nation in the world from a long relationship with human bondage. The shiny, bright symbols of democracy are stained by some of the worst oppression the human race has ever known. This fact is gut-wrenching and it should be.

But when we make space to finally unpack this story, we engage in a truth-telling that enlightens all of us. We can pay back the debt first by restoring an esteemed heritage to a people and their ancestors. And then we can join FLOTUS in acknowledging that the benefits, resources, and privileges that we, the people of the U.S., now enjoy were purchased at a steep cost by people we have no right to forget.

In an episode of The Sopranos, the main character Tony Soprano takes a break from a Department of Housing and Urban Development scam to exploit poverty-ridden black and Latino neighborhoods to admire the stone masonry of a local church. He proudly tells his son that their immigrant ancestors constructed the chapel, leaving a legacy to be cherished for generations. The story of how people from other lands shaped and formed the U.S. with their hands has been embraced repeatedly by our society’s storytelling institutions. And it’s time for enslaved African Americans to claim their rightful place in that narrative.