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Ancestors Who Built the White House

The election of Barack Obama as President will highlight some of the unsung or lost heroes in American history. The White House Historical Association’s website, describes the work of a well-known architect and builder, James Hoban. Irish-born James Hoban is showcased on the site because he was the architect who designed and built the White House from 1 792 to 1799. He advertised in Philadelphia, appealing to "any gentleman who wishes to build in an elegant style." That was in 1785. Then he lived in Charleston, South Carolina from 1787 to 1793, and continued to market his "Joining and Carpenter’s business."

The site also says, "Hoban’s name has been connected to . . . the historic Charleston County Courthouse and the William Seabrook House."

One of the wealthiest cotton plantation owners in South Carolina, Captain William Seabrook of Edisto Island, hired the architect James Hoban to build the Seabrook Mansion on Edisto Island, between 1808 to 1814, (most historians say 1810). Captain Seabrook also built the Georgian mansion, Oak Island, as a wedding present for his son, William E. Seabrook, Jr. in 1828.

Because James Hoban lived and worked in Charleston, Captain William Seabrook hired out his slaves who were carpenters and masons to Hoban, the architect and builder. He traded the slave carpenters’ and masons’ skills and was paid for their work, and he also traded their labor for Hoban’s architectural designs. Slaves were expensive, so the plantation owners like Seabrook hired out the skilled workers. In that era, African and Caribbean workers built wealth for their owners from cotton, rice, indigo and sugarcane, as these products became king in the world market. But they also built wealth for owners as craftsmen and women.

Captain William Seabrook, wealthiest of the cotton planters, owned 1,500 slaves on Edisto Island in South Carolina. My brother-in-law, a Seabrook, a minister, whose family roots are on Edisto Island, and my nephew, a Seabrook, Jr., a dentist, declined DNA comparisons in 2000 when I uncovered their Edisto Island Colonial slave ancestors in genealogical records. So, I don’t know if they were simply named after Captain Seabrook and his family, or are related. They refused to do the DNA comparisons with white Seabrook descendants, because the raw sting of slavery was still in the psyche. In time, they adjusted to the news that Captain Seabrook, like other planters, hired out the skilled slaves to builders, architects and farmers, and collected their pay. The senior Seabrooks in our family were raised on Edisto Island and still have relatives there.

My sister, a Seabrook wife and mother, and I had no qualms about doing ancestral DNA comparisons. In my own research and DNA comparison, I uncovered dozens of genealogical records, which revealed a noble Scotsman on our direct maternal family tree. A Scottish court, which has been researching noble and royal ancestry since the 13th century, reviewed my records, and granted me a noble family’s coat of arms. Scottish and English lords, our ancestral cousins, now correspond with me from their seats in the House of Lords. The coat of arms I was granted in 2005 is listed online. My parents are still amazed at the people I found on our ancestral family tree.

As the Obama inauguration draws near, one of the things we must remember is that buried in the events of America’s most troubled history, are some of its people’s greatest triumphs. African-American ancestors were deprived as slaves, but African slaves, working alongside other Americans, built America. We are learning to separate the morsels of triumphant history from the eras of struggle. Genealogists are uncovering all kinds of records, people and events that historians missed, or were too myopic to see and tell.

One of the outcomes of the Obama presidential era will be that it will help us look back at earlier eras of American history and take pride in the accomplishments of all Americans, including slaves. We can look at the skillful, positive events and people of the slavery era and take pride in them. Many years ago, I found books, published by local historical societies in Virginia and the Carolinas. The books showed the names of the skilled black carpenters and masons, like the black Seabrooks, who built private mansions and state and federal buildings.

The skilled black carpenters and masons who were our Seabrook ancestors were some of the slaves who worked on Captain William Seabrook's mansions. They were hired out by him to the Irish-born James Hoban, the architect who designed and built the White House. So, in all likelihood, our family’s ancestors helped build the White House.

I found the names of black carpenters and masons in the index of early editions of the historical architectural books, published by local historical societies in Virginia and the Carolina. The publishers placed a "C" next to the names of the carpenters and masons, such as those who were the ancestors of my in-laws and nephew. The "C" stood for "colored." But by the 1990s, the local historical publishers removed the "C" from the names in the revised editions of the books. The accomplishments of these colonial ancestral black carpenters and masons who worked on the White House and on the statehouse in South Carolina were lost to modern political correctness. A footnote would have sufficed; it could have indicated that at that time in America, African-Americans were called, colored. Let's not erase negative history by also erasing the good events and people of American history. That is one lesson we can learn from the new presidential era.

The black Seabrooks in our family are descended from colonial carpenters and masons who were slaves. We know that these ancestors helped build the White House, when they were lent by their owner Captain William Seabrook to the Irish architect, James Hoban. We celebrate that history. We celebrate Americans who prevailed.