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Untold History: More Than a Quarter of U.S. Presidents Were Involved in Slavery, Human Trafficking

As the country marks Presidents’ Day, we turn to an aspect of U.S. history that is often missed: the complicity of

American presidents with slavery. "More than one-in-four U.S. presidents were involved in human trafficking and slavery. These presidents bought, sold and bred enslaved people for profit. Of the 12 presidents who were enslavers, more than half kept people in bondage at the White House," writes historian Clarence Lusane in his most recent article, "Missing from Presidents’ Day: The People They Enslaved."

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AMY GOODMAN: As the country marks Presidents’ Day today, we turn to an aspect of U.S. history often missed: the complicity of American presidents with slavery. The first person of African descent to enter the White House was most likely a slave. The nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., once hosted markets where human beings were sold for profit. Slaves built some of the country’s most famous landmarks, including Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, Boston’s Faneuil Hall, James Madison’s Montpelier. Last week, President Obama mentioned the role of slaves in building one specific landmark: Thomas Jefferson’s plantation estate in Charlottesville, Virginia. Obama was touring the home of America’s third president with French leader François Hollande. This is what Obama had to say about Monticello.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This house also represents a complicated history of the United States. We just visited downstairs, where we know that slaves helped to build this magnificent structure, and the complex relations that Jefferson, the drafter of the Declaration of Independence, had to slavery. And it’s a reminder for both of us that we are going to continue this fight on behalf of the rights of all peoples, something that I know France has always been committed to and we are committed to, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama speaking last week during French President François Hollande’s visit to the U.S.

We’re joined now by Clarence Lusane, who has documented the racial history of Washington, D.C., and the presidency. His most recent article is "Missing from Presidents’ Day: The People They Enslaved." Clarence Lusane writes, quote, "more than one in four U.S. presidents were involved in human trafficking and slavery. These presidents bought, sold, and bred enslaved people for profit. Of the 12 presidents who were enslavers, more than half kept people in bondage at the White House," he writes. Clarence Lusane is author of The Black History of the White House, a member of the D.C. Commission on African American Affairs, also professor at American University in Washington, D.C.

Professor Lusane, welcome to Democracy Now! So, talk about this history of slavery and U.S. presidents.

CLARENCE LUSANE: Well, I’m glad that you pointed out that President Obama, when he went to Jefferson’s home, pointed out the slave history there. But it’s also important to note that the most iconic building in the U.S., the one that represents the country to the world, the White House, also was a place where slavery existed. Not only that, it was built by slaves. And none of that has been publicly acknowledged. There is over a million people who visit the White House every year, who go on tours, who come for meetings, and you can go through that building and never have a sense of that important history.

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