It’s one week until election day. And we all know that the winner of the presidential election gets to live in the White House; work there, sleep there and eat there. I’ve seen the outside of that house when my family visited Washington D.C., and it’s so large, and I wondered who had built such a huge, luxurious house.
When I read this book, Brick By Brick by Charles R. Smith Jr., I learned that it was actually enslaved Black people who built the original White House, along with immigrants from Scotland and freed Black people. They were supposed be building a house for George Washington, the first president of the United States. But it wasn’t done until years later when John Adams became president.
If you ever pick up this book, you will view the White House from a new perspective because the story is told from the perspective of the enslaved workers. The powerful illustrations by Floyd Cooper, show how these men, women and children (who look younger than me) laid the foundation, sawed the bricks, and worked long hours. And even though they worked so hard, SLAVE OWNERS got the money!!!! The background in most of the illustrations is a drab brown, maybe to resemble the way the workers felt: drab, tired, hoping for something better.
The story was written in an interesting way, too. I love the author’s word choice, “crack”, “hazy”, “blister”, “toil”; because it showed the difficulty of the work. Instead of saying, “the work was hard,” and underrating what really happened. The author explains and elaborates in a kid-friendly way, really describing how rough the work was. “…slave hands ache, dark skin to white bone.”
It really touched me when the book mentioned names of the unpaid workers – “Will, Nace, Gererd, Manuel” and “Jess, Charles, Len” … I imagined their faces covered in sweat, hands red with blood – but still, not being treated as equal. (Later, some people with specific skills helped build the inside of the White House and could earn money to pay for their freedom.)
Enslaved people didn’t only work in cotton fields. They built the president’s house! Former First Lady Michelle Obama mentioned it in a speech she gave in 2016. “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves,” she said.
I recently also learned that Black people built many other important landmarks including the buildings on Wall Street and Harvard Law School. We always learn about the presidents and the Founding Fathers, but we rarely learn the history of the role Black people played in building the country. Teachers should teach these lessons and read this book, too.
Four out of four roses!!!