Michelle Obama had the audacity to say that slaves helped build the White House and the Fox News crowd flipped out. Bill O’Reilly quickly pointed out that the slaves were well-fed and had “decent lodgings.” I suppose Bill felt that them being slaves was not in and of itself problematic. The rush to downplay the First Lady’s comments shows how uncomfortable we are with our past. It is a past that FLOTUS barely scratched the surface on; she left out that not only did slaves build the White House but this entire country was in fact built on the backs of slaves. From our institutes of higher learning to the financial sector, we have enslaved Africans to thank for it all. Acknowledging that bothers us as a country and disturbs the delusion that our “Protestant Work Ethic” is the root of our prosperity. The First Lady removed one small stone from a mountain of delusion that must come down.
Education is the foundation of any society’s progress. Just as the White House owes its existence to slaves, so do our nation’s great institutes of higher learning. Georgetown University has an endowment of $1.5 billion but at one time relied on Jesuit slave plantations to finance its operations. Faced with financial ruin in 1838, Georgetown survived by selling 272 slaves to pay its debts. Brown University had some thirty board members who owned or captained slave ships and donors who contributed slave labor to help construct the school. The Brown family themselves owned slaves and engaged in the slave trade. Further south, schools like Virginia and North Carolina have acknowledged that their grounds were literally built by the labor of slaves. Yes, education is the foundation of our progress but that foundation was built by slaves.
Education ultimately manifests in prosperity. As a nation we have grown to be the most prosperous in the history of the world. Our financial institutions–banks, insurance companies and exchanges–are the ultimate stewards of that prosperity. These institutions, too, were built on the backs of slaves. From financing slave ships to insuring the cargo, enslaved bodies were the building blocks of our financial infrastructure. JP Morgan Chase, for example, is a tree with roots extending to two banks in Louisiana that served plantations (read slaveowners). Between 1831 and 1865 they accepted approximately 13,000 slaves as collateral, ultimately owning about 1,250. There are insurers like Aetna, who sold policies insuring slave owners against losses when their slaves died. Indeed, Wall Street itself owes its name to slaves who built a wall to protect the settlers from “Indian” raids in 1653. By 1711, Wall Street was a bonafide slave market. Our financial institutions did not mature outside of slavery.
The fingerprints of slavery are literally everywhere, from the academy to the stock exchange floor. The First Lady was not only factual in acknowledging the role of slaves in building the White House but appropriate. It is high time that we rid ourselves of the delusion that America was built on moral fortitude and honest, hard work. We were built on slavery, through and through. From railroads, agriculture and even cowboys in the west, slavery is behind every curtain. To be offended by the First Lady’s comments not only indicates a historical ignorance but a dishonesty about everything that we are. It’s time for the delusion to stop.