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Famous U.S. Buildings and Landmarks Built With Slave Labor

Michelle Obama’s DNC speech was a reminder that slave labor helped build the White House. It helped build these other famous structures, too.

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On Monday evening, Michelle Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention received critical acclaim for its tone and message, as well as extensive coverage of one of her closing lines—"today, I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves." Juxtaposed with an image of her daughters playing in the White House Lawn, the line summarized the scope of social progress in the United States.

Obama’s oratory underscored an uncomfortable part of our capitol's, and nation’s, past. But the White House was far from the only structure in D.C. that was built, at least in part, utilizing then-legal slave labor. It’s a fair assumption that many larger buildings in the early years of the colonies and the country, as well as the antebellum south, may have been built, at least in part, with slave labor (over the last few years, many schools and institution are currently wrestling with the question of what to do with Confederate-era monuments).

Here are a few examples of how slave labor factored into construction of some of the nation's early landmarks, the stories of some of these laborers, who in many cases were skilled artisans, and how modern-day institutions are discussing, and in many cases memorializing, this chapter in history.

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1. U.S. Capitol Building

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East Capitol St NE & First St SE
Washington, DC 20004

In 2012, Congress unveiled an historic marker that commemorated the slave labor that went into the construction of the capitol. The area where the legislative center of the U.S. sits was previously known as Jenkins Hill, a heavily forested area that required extensive landscaping, as well as trench digging for the foundation, from slaves, all before George Washington laid the cornerstone in 1793. According to Fred Beuttler, a Historian for the House of Representatives, one of the building’s most iconic symbols, the brass Statue of Freedom, was in part, fashioned through the efforts of a Philip Reid, a former slave. In 1863, after the Emancipation Proclamation had been delivered, Reid helped work with the plaster model delivered by sculptor Thomas Crawford, and forged Crawford’s model. In addition, according to Beuttler, some of the sandstone in the old east front of the building contains the names of slave laborers who had cut the stone.

2. Wall Street and Trinity Church

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75 Broadway
New York, NY 10006

The country’s financial center was named after a wall that was built in 1653 to protect settlers from Indian raids. Freed and enslaved Africans formed a significant part of the labor pool that created the wall, as well as other infrastructure and buildings in what is now Lower Manhattan, including Trinity Church (there was a slave market at Wall and Water streets, and slave ships would dock at what is now the South Street seaport). According to the church’s archivist, the parish, which was founded in 1696, utilized slave labor at several points during its early history, with many early members contributing slaves to help construct the initial church (which burned down in 1776).

3. UNC-Chapel Hill

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153 Country Club Rd
Chapel Hill, NC 27514

In a 2005 exhibit titled “Slavery and the Making of the University: Celebrating Our Unsung Heroes, Bond and Free,” the university displayed historical documents and records showcasing how the institution, founded in 1789, utilized slave labor to erect many early buildings. The Unsung Founders Memorial, unveiled in 2002, honors those "people of color bound and free" who helped build the university. UNC is far from the only institution of higher learning conducting similar research and striving to be more open about its own history, as many other universities have come forward in recent years with similar stories and monuments.

4. Monticello

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931 Thomas Jefferson Pkwy
Charlottesville, VA 22902

During the construction of Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia estate, slaves assisted many of the local laborers who built the sprawling estate, especially carpenters. Much of the structural woodwork and framing was provided by slave carpenters. John Hemmings, who trained under white workers and was considered more than a standard assistant, crafted fine mahogany furniture and served as a carpenter and cabinetmaker beside James Dinsmore, the Irish joiner credited with Monticello’s elegant woodwork. Hemmings, responsible for the interior woodwork on another Jefferson property, Poplar Forest, was also beloved by the Jefferson grandchildren for the toys he made for them (they called him “Daddy Hemmings.”)

5. Castillo de San Marcos

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1 S Castillo Dr
St Augustine, FL 32084

The oldest masonry fort in the continental United States, and a rare fortification that was controlled by four different governments throughout the centuries (Spain, Great Britain, the Confederacy, and the United States), this unique building was designated a National Monument. Construction by the Spanish began in 1672 with the creation of unique “coquina” walls. Spanish for “little shells,” the name refers to the unique masonry process, which combined baked oyster shells, lime, and sand to form a porous exterior that that held the fort together. Slaves, along with local laborers, Native Americans, and convicts, helped build the waterfront military installation.

6. Mount Vernon

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3200 Mount Vernon Memorial Hwy
Mt Vernon, VA 22121

The home and plantation of the nation’s first president ran on the labor of hundreds of slaves owned by George and Martha Washington, many of whom specialized in different trades, including woodworking and blacksmithing. Many of the structures spread across the grounds of Mount Vernon, including a unique 16-sided barn for grain processing and storage, were built by slave laborers and carpenters, often overseen by longtime head carpenter Thomas Green.

7. University of Virginia

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1826 University Ave
Charlottesville, VA 22903

Founded by Thomas Jefferson, the esteemed southern university has always celebrated its traditions and heritage. In 2007, the school’s Board of Visitors passed a resolution expressing regret for the use of slaves and slave labor at the school, which were utilized in the construction of key buildings, including the central rotunda.

8. Washington & Lee University

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204 W Washington St
Lexington, VA 24450

As the name would suggest, Washington & Lee has ties to the American South and its history with slavery. John Robinson, a Southern landowner who passed in 1826, left his land and property with Washington College. Land gifted to the academic institution would later form the home of another school, Southern Virginia University, while the 84 slaves gifted by Robinson helped construct the Washington & Lee campus.

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1. U.S. Capitol Building

East Capitol St NE & First St SE, Washington, DC 20004

In 2012, Congress unveiled an historic marker that commemorated the slave labor that went into the construction of the capitol. The area where the legislative center of the U.S. sits was previously known as Jenkins Hill, a heavily forested area that required extensive landscaping, as well as trench digging for the foundation, from slaves, all before George Washington laid the cornerstone in 1793. According to Fred Beuttler, a Historian for the House of Representatives, one of the building’s most iconic symbols, the brass Statue of Freedom, was in part, fashioned through the efforts of a Philip Reid, a former slave. In 1863, after the Emancipation Proclamation had been delivered, Reid helped work with the plaster model delivered by sculptor Thomas Crawford, and forged Crawford’s model. In addition, according to Beuttler, some of the sandstone in the old east front of the building contains the names of slave laborers who had cut the stone.

East Capitol St NE & First St SE
Washington, DC 20004

2. Wall Street and Trinity Church

75 Broadway, New York, NY 10006

The country’s financial center was named after a wall that was built in 1653 to protect settlers from Indian raids. Freed and enslaved Africans formed a significant part of the labor pool that created the wall, as well as other infrastructure and buildings in what is now Lower Manhattan, including Trinity Church (there was a slave market at Wall and Water streets, and slave ships would dock at what is now the South Street seaport). According to the church’s archivist, the parish, which was founded in 1696, utilized slave labor at several points during its early history, with many early members contributing slaves to help construct the initial church (which burned down in 1776).

75 Broadway
New York, NY 10006

3. UNC-Chapel Hill

153 Country Club Rd, Chapel Hill, NC 27514

In a 2005 exhibit titled “Slavery and the Making of the University: Celebrating Our Unsung Heroes, Bond and Free,” the university displayed historical documents and records showcasing how the institution, founded in 1789, utilized slave labor to erect many early buildings. The Unsung Founders Memorial, unveiled in 2002, honors those "people of color bound and free" who helped build the university. UNC is far from the only institution of higher learning conducting similar research and striving to be more open about its own history, as many other universities have come forward in recent years with similar stories and monuments.

153 Country Club Rd
Chapel Hill, NC 27514

4. Monticello

931 Thomas Jefferson Pkwy, Charlottesville, VA 22902

During the construction of Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia estate, slaves assisted many of the local laborers who built the sprawling estate, especially carpenters. Much of the structural woodwork and framing was provided by slave carpenters. John Hemmings, who trained under white workers and was considered more than a standard assistant, crafted fine mahogany furniture and served as a carpenter and cabinetmaker beside James Dinsmore, the Irish joiner credited with Monticello’s elegant woodwork. Hemmings, responsible for the interior woodwork on another Jefferson property, Poplar Forest, was also beloved by the Jefferson grandchildren for the toys he made for them (they called him “Daddy Hemmings.”)

931 Thomas Jefferson Pkwy
Charlottesville, VA 22902

5. Castillo de San Marcos

1 S Castillo Dr, St Augustine, FL 32084

The oldest masonry fort in the continental United States, and a rare fortification that was controlled by four different governments throughout the centuries (Spain, Great Britain, the Confederacy, and the United States), this unique building was designated a National Monument. Construction by the Spanish began in 1672 with the creation of unique “coquina” walls. Spanish for “little shells,” the name refers to the unique masonry process, which combined baked oyster shells, lime, and sand to form a porous exterior that that held the fort together. Slaves, along with local laborers, Native Americans, and convicts, helped build the waterfront military installation.

1 S Castillo Dr
St Augustine, FL 32084

6. Mount Vernon

3200 Mount Vernon Memorial Hwy, Mt Vernon, VA 22121

The home and plantation of the nation’s first president ran on the labor of hundreds of slaves owned by George and Martha Washington, many of whom specialized in different trades, including woodworking and blacksmithing. Many of the structures spread across the grounds of Mount Vernon, including a unique 16-sided barn for grain processing and storage, were built by slave laborers and carpenters, often overseen by longtime head carpenter Thomas Green.

3200 Mount Vernon Memorial Hwy
Mt Vernon, VA 22121

7. University of Virginia

1826 University Ave, Charlottesville, VA 22903

Founded by Thomas Jefferson, the esteemed southern university has always celebrated its traditions and heritage. In 2007, the school’s Board of Visitors passed a resolution expressing regret for the use of slaves and slave labor at the school, which were utilized in the construction of key buildings, including the central rotunda.

1826 University Ave
Charlottesville, VA 22903

8. Washington & Lee University

204 W Washington St, Lexington, VA 24450

As the name would suggest, Washington & Lee has ties to the American South and its history with slavery. John Robinson, a Southern landowner who passed in 1826, left his land and property with Washington College. Land gifted to the academic institution would later form the home of another school, Southern Virginia University, while the 84 slaves gifted by Robinson helped construct the Washington & Lee campus.

204 W Washington St
Lexington, VA 24450