In her speech to the Democratic National Convention, First Lady Michelle Obama was speaking of the progress this nation has made, and in the process said, “That is 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, but who kept on 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. And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women playing with their dogs on the White House lawn. And because of Hillary Clinton, my daughters and all our sons and daughters now take for granted that a woman can be president of the United States.”
You can see it here:
So what happened? Predictably, those with low intelligence and high racism at first denied the White House was built by slaves. Confronted with a mountain of evidence showing it was indeed built with slave labor [see here, here, here, and here], they had to take a different tack. The more delusional of them claimed it was “Irish slaves” who built the White House. You can’t make this stuff up. That was shot down as well [see here].
Bill O’Reilly, a commentator on Fox News who fancies himself to be a historian [insert laugh track here], then weighed in for what he called “fact checking” the First Lady. He claimed those slaves who worked at the White House “were well fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government.”
You can see his comments here:
O’Reilly has rightly been lambasted by historians. Kevin Levin weighs in here. Glenn David Brasher comments here. Professor Ed Ayers appears in a Time Magazine online article here, along with comments from Caleb McDaniel. Professors Ayers and McDaniel connect O’Reilly’s comments with the proslavery apologia that appeared from Antebellum times all the way through the present:
“As Edward L. Ayers, President Emeritus of the University of Richmond, explains to TIME, the idea that people in slavery in America were well-fed and cared for is one of the oldest rationalizations of the nation’s history of slavery. To understand how it came to be, Ayers says, look back to the 1830s, ‘a pivotal moment for American slavery.’ At that moment in time, it began to seem possible that slavery might be on its way out: Nat Turner’s Rebellionin 1831 scared slaveholders, Virginia considered freeing slaves in the state and radical abolitionists, who wanted to end slavery immediately, began toattract more national attention. At the same time, however, the economics of slavery were changing: with the spread of the cotton gin, the main cash crop associated with slavery became many times more valuable to plantation owners, which meant that the slaves who did the labor were more valuable too. Those who benefited from the system had all the more reason to seek its continuation, and all the more reason to worry that wouldn’t happen. So the people who wanted to keep slavery around had to figure out a way to defend it as a positive good, especially against those who had moral, not economic, arguments. One defense was religious, pointing out that being enslaved had introduced people to Christianity. The other main defense was that American slaves were better off, in terms of living conditions, than they would have been in Africa or in another slave society. The idea was exemplified by people like Thomas R. Dew, who wrote in 1832 that ‘A merrier being does not exist on the face of the globe, than the negro slave of the United States’ and that ‘the slaves of a good master’ were ‘accustomed to look up to him as their supporter, director and defender.’ (Even in his own time, Dew’s arguments were fiercely disputed.)
” ‘When the pro-slavery defense crystallized,’ Ayers says, ‘the material welfare of the enslaved people in the United States was always held up as the example of its benign nature.’ That so-called welfare wasn’t the defense that slavery’s boosters thought it was. For example, if slaves in the U.S. lived longer than slaves in other places, that wasn’t a sign that slavery was a benevolent institution. It was a sign that the economics of cotton were such that, as Ayers puts it, ‘it wasn’t worth working someone to death.’ And, as historian Caleb McDaniel pointed out on Wednesday, ‘modest gains in enslaved people’s living conditions, food [and] housing, were won in struggle, not given freely.’ But the material-welfare argument endured even beyond the end of the institution itself—if not as a justification, once the practice was abolished, as a footnote that seemed, to some, to mitigate an evil. And so, in that sense, it’s not really shocking to see the idea make headlines more than a century later. ‘If you take a plantation tour, they often say, ‘Well, here the slaves were well taken care of,’ ‘ Ayers notes wryly. ‘This place is always an exception.’ Not that it would really matter. ‘No matter how materially adequate [slavery] might have been, in terms of nutrition or whatever,’ Ayers says, ‘you could wake up any day and your children could be sold.’ ”
Food historian Michael W. Twitty shows O’Reilly’s claim about the food was wrong here: “Food rations given to the enslaved were weekly, monthly or rarely, daily disbursements of nourishment, and they were often inadequate. Enslaved life was always colloquial to its environs and discretionary to the personal choices of slave holders and the enslaved, thus ‘typical’ rations for an enslaved person are not easily encapsulated by one account. But records show they often failed to adequately meet their dietary and nutritional needs. Even those working at the White House were badly mistreated. Another first lady, Abigail Adams, herself described slaves at the residence as ‘half fed and destitute of clothing’.” He concludes, “Let me challenge Bill O’Reilly to eat like an enslaved black person for a week if he feels they were so ‘well fed’. I’ve eaten the dry, crumbly half-burned ashcake, rusty salted meat and plain mush and hominy. Even with molasses, they’re far from good eating. That diet damned generations to impaired health and assumptions that people of color needed less nourishment than others. If O’Reilly is so convinced that our ancestors were well fed he should let me whip him up a batch of trough mush to go with his southern fried crow.”
O’Reilly’s doubled down on his comments, claiming he was “100% accurate.” See here.
This is an opportunity to talk about how the White House was built, how enslaved people were treated, and how slavery has been defended over the years, so I suppose O’Reilly has inadvertently done us a service through his incompetence.