By Senator Lena C. Taylor
In my twenty years in office, I had never visited the White House. As a regular visitor to Washington, DC, I’m often there for business. The trips are short and sweet, with little time for tourism. All that changed recently and my only regret is that I didn’t visit sooner.
As rumor goes and the White House Historical Association confirms that construction on the President’s House began in 1792 in Washington, D.C. The decision to place the capital on land formerly owned by pro-slavery states, Virginia and Maryland, factored greatly into who ultimately built the White House. You see, the original plan was to bring in workers from Europe. With few takers, the D.C. commissioners, who were tasked by Congress, to get this job done, turned to free and enslaved African-Americans. These men were pivotal in construction of the White House, the U.S. Capitol, and other government buildings.
Other groups that performed the work included “local white laborers and artisans from Maryland and Virginia, as well as immigrants from Ireland, Scotland, and other European nations” according to the White House Historical Association. While the U.S. government didn’t own enslaved people, their records clearly named enslaved carpenters, Peter, Ben, Daniel, and Harry, who were hired out by their owner James Hoban. As I walked through the tour, I felt the enormity of the responsibility that goes with the presidency. While others wanted to understand the difference between the East and West Wings, or the East, Green, and Blue Rooms, I thought about those enslaved workers. As I stopped to get a photo of myself in front of former President Barack Obama’s picture, I held my breath to appreciate the weight that was on this man’s shoulders. I smiled at the thought of a young Sasha and Malia playing in this house. I appreciated Michelle Obama’s ability to demonstrate grace under fire. I could see Mrs. Robinson, looking to the heavens and smiling. And for this all, I was thankful.
In preparing for my visit, I woke to the news of Florida’s Governor and Presidential Candidate Ron DeSantis’ continued attack on diversity, equity, and inclusion. More specifically, the God-awful decision to approve a public-school Black History curriculum, that found the upside of slavery, was simply malicious. The Florida Board of Education’s desire to academically and socially handicap their students is educational malpractice. And DeSantis’ support is what made the White House tour and meeting today more meaningful.
I’ve said it before and I will say it again. This country’s DNA does not exist without Black people. Our contributions and maltreatment are intertwined in every thread, of the flags that hangs atop government buildings. Long before DeSantis’ eight great-grandparents emigrated from southern Italy, along with hundreds of thousands of Italians early in the 20th century, Peter, Ben, Daniel, and Harry were in America.
It is that understanding of history that fuels my work, emboldens my steps, and requires that I always give voice to the concerns of my community. What DeSantis, the Florida Board of Education, and any allies of theirs don’t understand is, you can’t take from us, what you didn’t give to us. You don’t own our history, we do.