The original White House in Washington, D.C. was built in the 1790s with the help of slaves rented from nearby plantations. The irony of the Founding Fathers who, in search of liberty and justice for all, utilized slaves to achieve it, is a subtle undercurrent in this poetic history of the construction of the new symbol of Free America.
Smith uses rhythmic repetition that focuses on the hard tasks of mixing mortar and spreading it; chiseling, carving, and transporting stone; and bleeding and blistering under a hot son.
“Up, down, push, pull
two men per pit saw,
until slave hands are raw.”
Perhaps the best part of this book is the way the author’s fierce passion for justice is evinced by his recitation of the names of some of these slaves, names which he uncovered in his research for the book. By giving them identities, he turns them from faceless slaves into real people, whose descendants would go on not only to gain their freedom, but even to see Michelle Obama, a descendant of slaves like them, occupy the White House with her husband.
Illustrator Floyd Cooper (like the author, a Coretta Scott King Award winner) captures the mood of the book perfectly in oil-wash paintings that emphasize the brown tone of the work site, and almost bring to mind the story of the Exodus, with slaves working in the desert to build the pyramids.
In an afterword, Smith shares some of what he learned in his research about the building of the first White House, and includes a list of selected resources.
Evaluation: This book is meant for children 5-8, but I think children will appreciate having a parent co-reader answer the questions they may have about this very different era in our history. After a first “explanatory” reading though, I imagine children will want to return to this book repeatedly. It offers mesmerizing pictures and a compelling story about a symbol of America children will undoubtedly recognize.
Published by Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2013