Review: Black Hands, White House

Black Hands, White House, Renee K. Harrison. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2021.

Summary: A history of how enslaved peoples played a major role in the building of this country and the need to remember that work in our monuments and by other means.

A number of histories have detailed the slave experience in America. What is unique about this history is that it seeks to give an account of the contribution enslaved Blacks made to the building of this country and its economy. Not only that, it seeks to tell the story of people, often by name who made that contribution while enslaved. The author believes they need to be remembered for their important role. They are a part of America’s history and are worthy to be included.

The author begins with an overview of the economic impact enslaved Blacks made in the country especially through the production of tobacco, cotton, rice, and sugar. She also lists six pages of companies and institutions that benefited from American slavery, or directly from slave labor. These include the government — slaves built many of Washington’s buildings and infrastructure. Insurance companies insured slaves for their owners, various banks accepted slaves as collateral or owned slaves, newspapers advertised slave sales, universities were funded by slave owners and some used slave labor in their construction, railroads rented slave labor, mines employed slaves–even churches and seminaries owned slaves and used slave labor.

Succeeding chapters chronicle the role slaves played in specific building projects. Mount Vernon’s buildings and tobacco and wheat crops depended on slaves. The author lists the names and values of slaves inherited by or subsequently hired by Washington and their trades, spouses, and enslaved children. At least 150 are buried in unmarked graves there.

Benjamin Banneker, a free black son of a slave was a self taught astronomer who was part of the survey team laying out boundaries, his role being to place the boundary markers for the new capital city. Slaves fired and laid many of the bricks and cut and hauled much of the stone for buildings in Washington. Slave markets often existed in the shadow of builds rising as shrines to democracy and freedom.

Both the White House and Capitol building were built with slave labor–and slaves re-built the White House after it was burned in the War of 1812. Of the first eighteen presidents, only two never owned slaves and publicly opposed slavery. Eight brought slaves they owned into the White House, four others owned slaves but did not have them at the White House. Four others, including Lincoln, did not own slaves but had ambiguous positions on slavery.

A similar story may be told of the Capitol. On page 175, the author lists 100 people who were “rented” for the construction of the Capitol building, a partial list. Philip Reid, a slave from Charleston, South Carolina, figured out how to cast Clark Mills Statue of Freedom in sections and install it atop the Capitol dome. His owner received most of the wages, apart from $41.25, for his work.

She goes on to describe slave involvement in the construction of the Supreme Court building, the Treasury building, the Smithsonian castle, Georgetown University, and the Library of Congress. At the core of the Library is the collection of Thomas Jefferson’s library. John Hemings fashioned the pine bookshelves and the portable book boxes in which the books were transported, Burwell Colbert painted the carriage that transported the books and Joseph Fossett fashioned the ironwork on the carriage.

Harrison believes it is past time to recognize in our nation’s monuments, particularly on the National Mall, the history of slavery, the vast machine of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the contribution that peoples forcibly removed from their own countries made in ours. She chronicles the inadequate attempt to do so with the Freedman’s Memorial, funded by former slaves but appropriated by white directors who chose the design, Abraham Lincoln towering over a kneeling slave who had been freed. Frederick Douglass, in a speech at its dedication, acknowledged the bravery associated with Emancipation but also the white self-interest.

The author describes the memorial as a pattern of absolution without accountability that has run from the end of the Civil War to the relatives of the Charleston Nine. A monument alone will not satisfy all the needs for accountability but a National Sanctuary Memorial to Enslaved Black Laborers would mark a beginning–a tribute to their labors that also helped build our country, a remembrance of the people whose names and work are often absent from the pages of our histories. It’s part of a larger conversation of acknowledgement of harm and accountability and appropriate restitution without which our national wounds associated with slavery and racism cannot be healed.

This is a compelling history that moves beyond the indignities done to Black bodies to the dignity of their work, already evident in many of our national landmarks. They nourished the economy of an infant nation. I thought the idea of a National Sanctuary Memorial to Enslaved Black Laborers was quite appropriate. I was surprised to find no way to help with the funding of such an effort or petition for such a monument. The University of Virginia was the only place (one mentioned in her list of institutions) where such a thing has been done. I could find no website to advocate for a national memorial. I hope the author will persist and find others to mobilize a national effort toward this end, one worthy of the many she has written of by name and the many nameless others.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

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  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: April 2022 | Bob on Books

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