While this nation was engaged in its Civil War, slavery still existed in our nation’s capital of Washington, DC. Slavery did not end there until April 1862. It is highly likely that structures built in Washington, DC before 1860 were built and/or lived in by enslaved people.
First Lady, Michelle Obama, stating that the White House was built by enslaved people sparked a national conversation that needed to be had. While some accepted that information at face value, others seemed offended that she would even make such a claim. It was akin to claiming that President Thomas Jefferson fathered children with the enslaved Sally Hemings.
Well, historians do agree that slave labor was used in the building of the White House. During the War of 1812, the British burned that White House. President James Madison and First Lady Dolly Madison retreated to the Octagon House when that incident happened taking with them some of the enslaved who were working in the White House at the time.
According to its website: “The Octagon House, built between 1798 and 1800, was designed by Dr. William Thornton, the architect of the U.S. Capitol, and completed by 1800. Colonel John Tayloe, for whom the house was built, owned Mt. Airy plantation, located approximately 100 miles south of Washington in Richmond County, Virginia. Tayloe was reputed to be the richest Virginian plantation owner of his time, and built the house in Washington at the suggestion of George Washington. In 1814, Colonel Tayloe offered the use of his home to President and Mrs. Madison for a temporary “Executive Mansion” after the burning of the White House by the British. Madison, who used the circular room above the entrance as a study, signed the Treaty of Ghent there, which ended the War of 1812.”
If we were to focus only on 1798, the year the Octagon House was built or the fact that the builder of the house, Colonel John Tayloe, was a plantation owner, that would be more than enough incentive for the Slave Dwelling Project to add the Octagon House to its portfolio. The Slave Dwelling Project has spent nights in extant slave dwellings in the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.
……and now the District of Columbia. The sleepover at the Octagon House was long overdo. We had a previous date planned but moisture issues in the basement where the enslaved would have slept had to be addressed. Teresa Martinez, the director of the Octagon House was determined that this sleepover would occur. I met Teresa at an event three years prior at an event at Ben Lomond County Park in Manassas, Virginia. It was then that we both made a verbal commitment to make the sleepover happen. The persistence of both Teresa and me allowed us to make the stay happen on Friday, August 26, 2016.
I like to talk about the Slave Dwelling Project when I can introduce information to the general public about places where most would not have expected slavery to have been a factor. Washington, DC and more specifically, the Octagon House, is one of those places. We like to relegate the institution of slavery to southern states because it did take a Civil War and the thirteenth amendment to end slavery in the fifteen southern states where it existed in 1861 when the war started.
We tend to give northern states a pass when we interpret the institution of slavery. The Slave Dwelling Project continues to shed light on the slavery that existed in northern states with sleepovers in extant slave dwellings in the states of Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.
………and now, the District of Columbia. Sleeping in the Octagon House was an opportunity to extend the ties that the Slave Dwelling Project has developed with Montpelier, the home of President James Madison and First Lady Dolly Madison which is located in Orange County, Virginia. There, I have participated in a field school tasked with building a log cabin. I have also participated in an expedition tasked with the excavation of the south yard, the area where the enslaved who worked in the “big house” stayed. I have participated in a family reunion at the site consisting of African Americans and Caucasians who were brought together through DNA. I continue to consult with the site as they develop the new interpretation that will be more inclusive of the people who were enslaved there. Additionally, I have spent nights in three cabins on the site.
If I were writing a book, President James and First Lady Dolly Madison together would have a chapter. Director, Teresa Martinez, gets it. I usually come across young energetic directors of sites that have a stake in interpreting the history of the enslaved. They usually run the idea by others in the decision making process and get shot down. Not this time, Teresa made it happen! Not only did she make it happen, she allowed me to invite ten others to share the experience with me. Some of whose accounts will accompany this blog.
The experience was great because it gave me the opportunity to add the District of Columbia to the portfolio of places where I have spent a night in an extant slave dwelling. It also gave me the opportunity to further examine urban slavery, an element of slavery which is sometimes lost in our interpretation of slavery because we tend to focus only on southern plantations. The District of Columbia also helps to bridge that chasm that exists between northern and southern slavery.
The experience itself was great. From the time that I stepped into the house I was well aware that I had access to its upper floors. Never once did I proceed to the upper levels of the house. That just did not interest me. All of my time would be spent on the first floor and the basement where the enslaved would have spent most of their time in the structure. Most of us slept in the kitchen basement which allowed for some great conversation about the slavery that existed in this nation and the legacy that it has left.
The next day, Teresa planned a great program with great speakers. I would venture to say that with the exception of the period of slavery, that was the most diverse group of people ever in the Octagon House.
I wonder if the people who live in DC and those who visit ever give thought to the antebellum architecture that can help interpret the history of the people who were enslaved in this nation. The Octagon House is on that short list of places that is changing the narrative to be inclusive the slavery associated with its site. We need more like this.
I stayed overnight with the Slave Dwelling Project on September 26, 2016 at The Octagon Museum in Washington, DC. I would like to personally thank Teresa Martinez, the Manager of the Octagon House for making this experience possible. I arrived at the house early on Friday night about 4:45 pm so I was able to walk around the house prior to the others arriving. I was very much struck by the way life of the various people who lived in the house was interpreted in a way I had not experienced in an American Museum. The narrative of the African American experience at The Octagon is a very low-tech tactile experience. There are two enslaved people specifically highlighted within the House – Winney Jackson, Mrs. Tayloe’s body servant and Billy. What do I mean by a low-tech tactile experience? The Octagon focuses on the sleeping arrangements for the Tayloe Family and the enslaved people who would have lived there and finally the paid Kitchen servant who also lived in the basement with the enslaved people. Everyone including enslaved people needed to sleep so what better way for the Octagon Museum to show the differences in their sleeping experience than to actually provide visitors with straw mattresses Winney and Billy would have slept on. The museum is working on creating a recreated bed that the Tayloe’s would have slept on. Winney and Billy slept on a mattress filled with straw. I slept on one underneath my sleeping bag. At 3:00 am, I woke up with the straw having shifted mostly to the top of the mattress. It wasn’t comfortable. Visitors at the Octagon can lay down on Winney’s and Billy’s mattresses and think about how they lived. They can pick up the bucket of coal or the laundry basket at the bottom of the second flight of stairs used by the enslaved. They can experience the heaviness of having to take the bucket up to the second and third floors. I hope they can extend the low-tech tactile experiences to other aspects of life besides the sleeping arrangements – like cooking and other activities.
Places like the Octagon House are really important in telling the story of enslavement in the Americas because the Tayloe Family owned over 800 slaves. That is even more than George Washington! I wonder if there are Descendants of the people who were enslaved by the Tayloe’s who have contacted the Octagon Museum because including descendants of the enslaved people is important and necessary. Joe McGill and Mia Marie gave very interesting presentations about The Slave Dwelling Project and Mia’s work as an historical reenactor. I look forward to seeing her upcoming research on American Lullabies originally sung by enslaved African Americans. I was glad more people will know about the great work Joe McGill is doing with the Slave Dwelling Project.
Since I joined Coming to the Table (www.comingtothetable.org) and discovered the Slave Dwelling Project, I have been getting “comfortable with being uncomfortable.” During the overnight at the Octagon House, I felt uncomfortable because I was sleeping on a brick kitchen floor with the street light shining in my face; I felt uncomfortable because we were having difficult conversations; I felt uncomfortable because I was imagining the lives of the enslaved people who worked and lived in the Octagon House; and I felt uncomfortable because I realized that the shackles worn by one of the overnight guests represent the shackles (systemic racism and inequities) that still exist in our society today. And then I realized that feeling this discomfort is one of the key ingredients that I need in order to get out of my comfort zone; to change, learn, grow and act; to be a change agent; to keep practicing the four approaches of Coming to the Table: facing and uncovering history, making connections with others across racial lines, working toward healing, and taking action; and to stay in the RACE against racism. To me the RACE against individual and systemic racism involves four components: Relationships, Action, Communication, and Education. During the overnight at Octagon, I built relationships, communicated with others across racial lines, educated myself about those enslaved at the Octagon House, and grew more committed to taking action to dismantle racism on an individual and systemic level.
The Octagon House
Instructor & Coordinator,
Dept of History, Humanities & Languages
Trident Technical College
After the War of 1812 in which the White House was destroyed by fire, James Madison returned to Washington, D.C. and for a time, while a new presidential manor was being built, he stayed at the Octagon House, the second White House. There the Madisons resided along with a number of their slave laborers. I slept on a thin hay-filled mattress on the floor in the kitchen area of the basement. It was no Lincoln bedroom experience, nevertheless a memorable one and a strange irony where the ideal of liberty existed alongside slavery. It also calls to the attention of those studying the antebellum period the lives of the urban enslaved Africans. After working the many hours every days their dwellings included places like floors at the Octagon House. In other places and in many urban area, enslaved Africans also slept in attics and shacks in the alleys in back of the Big house.
Angela R. Dickey
Foreign Affairs, Peacebuilding, and Cross-Cultural Communications
Consultant and Trainer
Although I had walked or driven past the Octagon House in downtown Washington, DC, on a regular basis for many years, I had never set foot inside. I had learned from reading history that President James Madison and his wife, Dolley, had stayed in the house after the burning of Washington during the War of 1812. And I had also heard that the house held remnants of Madison’s diplomatic activities, including his “treaty desk.” Diplomacy is a particular interest of mine, as I worked for the U.S. Department of State as a U.S. Foreign Service Officer for 26 years.
But until recently I had never focused on the fact that the Madisons, as well as their hosts who owned the Octagon House — the family of John Tayloe III — were entirely dependent during their lifetimes on the unrecognized labor of enslaved people. Only recently have I begun to process in my mind the central contradiction that Madison, one of our country’s most distinguished founders, also was one of the twelve presidents of the United States who owned slaves. Approximately 100 enslaved people worked the Madison plantation, Montpelier, in Orange County, Virginia.
Similarly, I was unaware that the Tayloes owned 800 slaves at their Mount Airy plantation in Richmond County, Virginia, or that between 12 and 18 enslaved workers toiled full-time at their home in Washington, the Octagon. The enslaved at the Octagon, unlike those they served, had no access to feather beds or other accoutrements of a prosperous life. They slept on the floor where they worked.
Thus it was with some humility at my own ignorance that I came to spend the night at the Octagon House. I came because I support the important work of the Slave Dwelling Project in recognizing those African-Americans whose unrecognized labor built our country. As Joe McGill says, “they were not a footnote in American history.” I also came because I believe strongly that European-Americans like me need to inform ourselves about the extent to which slavery was baked into our founding American institutions, architecture, and leaders. We need to have an honest conversation with our selves, our families, and our communities about the great American conundrum, slavery, and the power it still holds over all of us.
Lying awake long after my companions seemed to be sleeping, I pondered the cold facts. Unrecognized, unpaid slave labor fueled the Tayloe fortune in ironmaking and shipbuilding. “Freed” from the burden of physical labor, John Tayloe III was at liberty to serve the revolution, the new country. He found political stardom in Virginia. Likewise, comfortably supported by a large network of slaves, my diplomat hero John Madison, whose famous library contained volumes about governments all over the world, was able to write an elegant, if flawed, Constitution that still stands.
I will not forget the night I spent at the Octagon House with the Joe McGill and members of the Slave Dwelling project. I didn’t sleep that well, notwithstanding my fine blow-up air mattress from Target. I didn’t sleep well at all, but then again, I imagine the Tayloe family’s slaves didn’t sleep well, either.
Thanks again, Joe, for the great opportunity to have spent the night at Octagon House. I hope to see you on future overnights.
The Octagon House
My stay at the Octagon House was my third overnight stay in a slave dwelling. This house has historical significance. It’s where James and Dolly Madison lived immediately after the burning of the White House. Owned by the Tayloe family as a summer residence, it was available when the President needed a place to live and conduct the business of the nation.
A moderately sized group of us stayed in the basement of the home where the enslaved of both the Tayloe and the Madison families would have stayed. There is no evidence of separate quarters on the property. I chose to stay right by the hearth as I am an 18th Century Hearth Cook and there is something about the hearth that calls me. I presume that the spot I chose would most likely be the spot that the enslaved cooks would have likewise slept. It is an honor to sleep in that spot; to sleep freely where a former slave once slept in bondage gives a measure of tribute to their lives, however small the gesture.
Because the Madisons came to this home after the fire at the White House I did a little research about Dolley’s thoughts and actions and found, in a letter to her sister, Dolley stated: “and now, dear sister, I must leave this house, or the retreating army will make me a prisoner in it by filling up the road I am directed to take. When I shall again write to you, or where I shall be tomorrow, I cannot tell!” How poignant that Dolley was concerned about not becoming a prisoner in her home, yet she herself held prisoners in bondage in that very same home.
It is with that knowledge that I reflect on my time in the Octagon House. The very same walls housed the very same people that maintained the White House, served our president, saved the Washington portrait along with James Madison’s presidential papers…people indispensable to the history of our country yet held in the lowest of esteem by enslavement. To them we owe so much.
I believe in the mission of The Slave Dwelling Project. I am personally changed by the overnight stays. I am personally challenged to, whenever I am able, right the wrongs of history in both word and deed. This is an honor I hold dearly.
Slave Dwelling Project at the Octagon
Sarah Heffern, National Trust for Historic Preservation
I’ll start with a confession: I’ve been a fan of the Slave Dwelling Project almost since before it existed. Joe McGill started it while we were colleagues at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and I had the good fortune to be the person editing the blog posts about his earliest overnight stays. I was intrigued from the get-go; I thought Joe had found the most interesting way possible to bring attention to history that was critically endangered while hiding in plain sight.
I’ve watched and read along with great interest as the project expanded from cabins on South Carolina’s plantations and posts on the National Trust blog to visits in more than 15 states and stories in the New York Times and Smithsonian magazine. The genius of the Slave Dwelling project is how accessible it is; sleep is possibly the most relatable human need and by laying his head where his enslaved ancestors would have, Joe connects the past and present in a way everyone can understand.
A couple of weeks ago, the Slave Dwelling Project — and Joe — arrived in Washington, D.C. for a night at the Octagon, and I reached out to see if I could join the group for their sleepover. Joe, ever welcoming, said yes. I had been to the Octagon before, but the only story I remembered was that it was the home where James and Dolley Madison stayed after the British burned the White House during the War of 1812, and the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the war, was signed there. I knew nothing of the family that owned it, and less than that of the enslaved men and women who lived there.
Teresa Martinez, the manager of the Octagon, joined us for the overnight, and filled us in on the Tayloe family, for whom the house was their city residence — their plantation, Mount Airy, was nearby in Virginia. They split up the year between the two locations, and a small number of their enslaved workers made the journey back and forth with them.
As a city house, the Octagon did not have a separate slave dwelling, which I learned meant the enslaved slept, for the most part, where they worked. So, cooks in the kitchen, ladies’ maids on the floor outside the door of their mistress, etc. Not only were they deprived of their freedom; they weren’t even afforded the dignity of having the modest amount of privacy that living in an outbuilding might have provided.
Most of our group opted to sleep where the cooks would have — in the in the kitchen, on the brick floor of the basement.
I won’t lie, it was not a great night’s sleep. I am, in general, fairly bad at sleeping in unfamiliar, uncomfortable, or loud places, and the kitchen of the Octagon was all three. I brought ear plugs with me, but once I got settled in, I decided not to use them. It felt like a violation of the spirit of what we were trying to do. An enslaved woman on that floor would not have had ear plugs to shut out the snores of her neighbors — and therefore, neither would I.
When I wasn’t dozing fitfully, I was thinking about what it would have been like for my discomfort, my sleeplessness to have been there every night, not for just one night, and for it to carry with it an endless threat of violence — for a bad night’s sleep leads to a bad day’s work. In my everyday life that means little more than frustration or a few more hours at the office; were I an enslaved person at the Octagon., it could have likely meant, at best, a beating.
One of the things my mom always said to me when I was growing up is “Don’t judge someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” Well, I don’t think one night on a hard kitchen floor is a mile, but it is the first few steps… not towards judgement, but towards greater empathy.
The Octagon: “Good” Slave Masters
We spent the night on the brick floor of the English basement kitchen of the Octagon, the three-story brick city home of the Tayloe family in the 18th and 19th centuries. The entry room or foyer is an unusual octagonal shape decorated in a delicate shell pink, and the living and dining rooms are gracefully proportioned, with many windows and light that fills the spaces. Lacey plaster work has been restored at the tops of the walls and around the fireplaces. An elegant staircase spirals up to the second and third floors. Everything about the appearance of the house suits what we know about the Tayloe family, who were wealthy and well-connected – so wealthy and well-connected, indeed, that they could offer their city house to President and Mrs. Madison as a temporary residence after the British burned the White House during the War of 1812.
Then off to left side of the central hall, you notice a feature of the house that makes the Tayloe family and Octagon house story more complex, revealing a darker aspect to life in this building. Down a narrow hall is the stairway that leads to the basement, to be used by the enslaved people, a community of people that well outnumbered the slave owning family. The basement rooms include the kitchen, the wine cellar, the housekeeper’s room, and the “servants’ hall.” They are solidly made and certainly would have provided adequate shelter, but there was no personal space, no retreat from labor. The enslaved people slept where they worked and were always at the beck and call of the masters. In fact, Mrs. Tayloe’s lady’s maid, Winnie Jackson, slept on the upper floor outside her mistress’s bedroom.
The Tayloes owned a plantation in Virginia, as well, from which they derived their income and where the majority of their enslaved people lived and worked. They spent several months each year in town, and the rest in the country. The enslaved people who were their personal servants, like Winnie Jackson, migrated between the city and the country with the owner family. So, however well clothed, fed and sheltered, Winnie still slept on the floor, had no time or space to herself, and was separated from her children for several months of the year, with no option to change the routine. As was the case with most slave owners, the Tayloes had no concern for the family feelings of their enslaved people, a clear indication that the lives and feelings of the enslaved people had lesser value to the elites.
Our guide recounted several stories of the Tayloe family and of the enslaved people who took care of them and their house. She repeated several times that the Tayloes’ typical response to “bad behavior” on the part of their enslaved people was to sell the person who did something wrong. So good service and compliant behavior were enforced by a form of quiet threat – not the whip, not chains, but separation from those you love, those who care about you, and from the familiar places and routines. Exile, in fact. At any moment, at the master’s whim, without reprieve.
Bill O’Reilly told the public recently that the enslaved people who built the White House didn’t have it so bad – they had decent food and shelter. Perhaps he and all the other apologists for slavery should at least do the thought experiment of putting themselves in the place of the Tayloe’s enslaved community. Decently fed, yes. Clothed, indeed. Adequately housed, certainly in the Octagon. But safe? Happy? A good life? Hardly. Certainly not, if being sold and exiled were an ever-present threat for all and a reality for a few.