by Sandy K. Johnson
One of the last sentences of Jesse Holland’s book neatly wraps up his narrative: “Before America had a black president living inside the White House, it had black slaves living in bondage inside those same walls.”
For almost a century, most American presidents were slave owners, and Holland skillfully weaves together the stories of those involuntary servants in his book, “The Invisibles, The Untold Story of African American Slaves in the White House.”
The idea came to Holland when he was covering Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign for president – Obama was about to be elected the first African-American president and occupy a house built by slave labor.
Holland researched the topic at the Library of Congress, the National Archives, the White House Historical Association and presidential estates such as Mount Vernon, Monticello and Montpelier.
Holland said he learned that most of these men knew slavery was wrong, but it came down to a choice between being wealthy and or being morally right. Most chose the former. From George Washington to Union General Ulysses Grant, Holland chronicles their stories.
“As a black man in America, some of these issues are tough for me to write about,” Holland said in a “Book Talk” with the National Press Foundation. But he said he came to believe it captures the American identify as it evolved from slavery to a black president.
Holland’s book and his research popped into the news in July 2016 when Michelle Obama said at the Democratic National Convention: “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.” Commentator Bill O’Reilly suggested the slaves were fed well and had comfortable lodging, creating an uproar. PolitiFact rated Obama’s statement as true in its fact-check.