Michelle Obama visits slave quarters

Michelle Obama visited the slave quarters at Decatur House — a red-brick structure that sits in the shadow of the White House — that once housed the black men and women who served 19th century politicians, military and business leaders who lived in the property. The first lady, who is the nation’s only first lady to have descended from people held in slavery, made the stop as part of an announcement that the historic Decatur House, which is located 150 yards from the White House, would receive a $1 million grant from American Express to preserve the house and accompanying slave quarters.


Michelle Obama greets schoolchildren from Willow Springs Elementary School in Fairfax, Va. at the Decatur House. (Susan Walsh/AP)

During remarks before she toured the quarters, Obama recalled the slaves “who spent their lives within shouting distance of one of the most powerful buildings on the planet — a bastion of freedom and justice for all,” noting that their “stories that are a part of so many of our families’ histories, including my own.”

The house and slave quarters are co-managed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the White House Historical Association, and used for educational programs. Obama reflected on the importance of preserving and sharing the stories of the enslaved people who once lived there.

“Yet, within this very place, about 20 men and women spent their days serving those who came and went from this house and their nights jammed together on the second floor of the slave quarters, all the while holding onto a quiet hope, a quiet prayer that they, too, and perhaps their children, would someday be free,” Obama said. “These stories of toil, and sweat, and quiet, unrelenting dignity — these stories are as vital to our national memory as any other.  And so it is our responsibility as a nation to ensure that these stories are told.”

After her remarks, Obama walked through the house and to the second floor slave residences, which housed the enslaved men and women in four small rooms. She visited several rooms in Decatur House, which rivals the White House in its ornate woodworking. American Express chief executive Kenneth Chenault accompanied Obama on the tour.

Sixth grade students from a Fairfax elementary school were participating in an interactive learning session as they walked through. The students dressed in period clothing and reenacted scenes from the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation that are part of a White House Historical Association play called “Paths to Freedom.”

“Great job!” Obama told the students.

Note: The text has been revised to reflect that the students were from an elementary school — not a middle school. And the caption has been updated with the correct name of the elementary school.

Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has covered local businesses, traveled to El Salvador and Guatemala to tell stories of immigrants’ connections to their home countries and reported from the newsroom’s Prince George’s County bureau. More recently, she has written about civil rights, race and politics.
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