Recognize slaves as builders of White House: Tshaka

Rep. Gary Ackerman (r.) invites Bayside activist Mandingo Tshaka to a June 2010 ceremony in which plaques recognizing the contributions of enslaved African Americans to the construction of the U.S. Capitol are unveiled.
TimesLedger Newspapers

After speaking with Bayside activist Mandingo Tshaka, U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-Bayside) sent a letter to President Barack Obama last week, urging him to recognize the role enslaved African Americans played in the construction of the White House.

“I write to request your help in recognizing the contribution of enslaved African Americans who helped build the White House,” the letter read. “In one of our history’s tragic ironies, slaves helped build the capital of the free world.”

“While the larger injustice of slavery can never be adequately corrected, the continuing failure of properly informing visitors to Washington of the history of slaves building our national structures — including the White House — should be remedied,” it continued.

Tshaka had alerted Ackerman to the forgotten fact that slave labor was used to build the U.S. Capitol building, and in 2010 the two men attended a ceremony in which Congress unveiled plaques to commemorate the enslaved peoples’ contributions.

“It was a shameful omission that visitors to the Capitol could tour the building to learn its history but not learn that slave labor was used in its construction,” Ackerman said. “I’m proud Congress took action to correct this failure and I now urge the White House follow suit.”

At a recent Community Board 11 meeting, Tshaka asked that his congressman investigate the construction of the White House, and Ackerman said he learned that slaves helped dig the building’s foundation, quarried stone for its walls, cut timber, sawed lumber and performed carpentry duties.

Tshaka, who learned of these histories from reading “The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks,” said he was, for the most part, pleased with Ackerman’s letter.

“Basically, it’s good,” he said. “It’s good except for one problem. It starts off with ‘enslaved Africans,’ then as it continues it says slaves, slaves, slaves. My people were not slaves; they were the victims of enslavement and that’s how I prefer it.”

“It does mention my name, though, and that’s wonderful,” he joked.

Tshaka, who first visited Washington, D.C., in the 1950s, said he would also like to see the contributions that engineer and freed slave Benjamin Banneker and enslaved African Americans made to the design and construction of the city’s streets.

“There’s never any mention of who put the infrastructure on the streets,” he said. “Benjamin was a genius and they hired him to do it, but you know who did the work ... there should be a plaque for Benjamin and those brothers who dug those streets.”

Reach reporter Rich Bockmann by e-mail at rbockmann@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4574.

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