This story has been updated with new comments from Ben Carson.
“That's what America is about. A land of dreams and opportunity. There were other immigrants who came here in the bottom of slave ships, worked even longer, even harder for less,” said Carson, speaking extemporaneously as he paced the room with a microphone. “But they, too, had a dream that one day their sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, great-grandsons, great-granddaughters might pursue prosperity and happiness in this land.”
His comments were broadcast live to all of HUD’s regional field offices as well as to the public.
A senior HUD official who spoke on condition of anonymity said no one in the room interpreted Carson’s comments as anything but a “heartfelt introduction to the HUD family.”
“He was making a point about people who came to this country for a better life for their kids,” the official said. “Nobody in that room put two and two together and came to five. Only the most cynical interpretation would conflate voluntary immigration to this country with involuntary servitude.”
Near the end of the town hall event, during a question-and-answer session, one HUD staffer took the microphone and thanked Carson for addressing the staff, noting that many in attendance had been worried about how the Trump administration would approach HUD and its work. The staffer said that she had been reassured by Carson’s comments as others clapped.
But the reaction on social media was swift and unforgiving.
On Twitter, users poked fun of the retired neurosurgeon’s gaffe, questioning whether he needed a brain transplant. They posted pictures of slave shackles on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, sarcastically asking whether Carson would refer to the instruments of bondage as “luggage.” Others said, using Carson's logic, that internment camps should be called “summer retreats” and concentration camps “diet facilities.”
The backlash caught several HUD employees who attended the event off guard, including career professionals at the department who said his speech was very well received internally. Carson’s team walked away from the event thinking it had gone very smoothly.
“HUD has many employees who are African American and at the end of his remarks they stood up and applauded for the secretary. Many went to take pictures of him,” said one staffer, speaking on background.
Another career staffer, who is black, said he did not notice that Carson had referred to slaves as "immigrants" until he read the media coverage hours later.
"That was lost on most people in the room. He was making the point that people didn’t just come through Ellis Island," the staffer said. "If anything, I thought someone may have taken issue with the fact that he was pointing out it was rougher for black people."
Carson weighed in on the controversy Monday night, saying on Twitter that a person "can be an involuntary immigrant," then proceeded to define an immigrant as "a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country."
"Slaves didn't just give up and die, our ancestors made something of themselves," Carson wrote on Twitter. His tweets included links to clips from a radio interview on the Armstrong Williams Show, in which he tried clarifying his earlier comments and repeated his use of the term "immigrant" to describe slaves. He also accused the media of blowing his remarks into a controversy.
Carson struck a more conciliatory tone later Monday night in a Facebook post on his personal page, writing that immigrants and slaves went through "two entirely different experiences."
"Slaves were ripped from their families and their homes and forced against their will after being sold into slavery by slave traders," he wrote. "The Immigrants made the choice to come to America. They saw this country as a land of opportunity. In contrast, slaves were forced here against their will and lost all their opportunities. We continue to live with that legacy."
Just last week, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos hailed historically black colleges and universities as “pioneers” of “school choice” after meeting with a group of college presidents. She made no mention of the fact that the schools were forged at the height of racial segregation because black Americans were barred by laws in many states from attending white institutions.
Instead, DeVos said in a statement that HBCUs are “living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality."
Trump sparked outrage while speaking at a Black History Month event in February when he referred to famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass in the present tense, as though he were still alive.
“Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice,” Trump said.
Some critics seized upon the statement and attacked Trump for apparently not really knowing who Douglass was.