Bill O'Reilly (AP/Richard Drew)

Bill O'Reilly's slavery denial: Claiming slaves who built the White House were "well-fed" doesn't soften our brutal history

The Fox News host delivers the worst "well, actually" postscript ever to Michelle Obama's inspiring DNC speech


Mary Elizabeth Williams
July 27, 2016 6:59PM (UTC)

Bill O'Reilly just wants you to get the facts straight. It's not like he's ever gotten anything wrong or been deliberately misleading before, right?  And on Tuesday, had a bone to pick with one aspect of First Lady Michelle Obama's transcendent, inspiring speech at the Democratic National Convention.

"I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves," Mrs. Obama had told the American people. And now, she said, "I watch my daughters — two beautiful, intelligent, black young women — playing with their dogs on the White House lawn."

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Well, hold up a sec, says O'Reilly.

Proving himself yet again so masterful and ignorant a troll he could run for the Republican nomination for president, O'Reilly told his "O'Reilly Factor" viewers of the "fascinating" history of the White House. He acknowledged that "slaves did participate in the construction of the White House. Records show about four hundred payments made to slave masters between 1795 and 1801. In addition, free blacks, whites and immigrants also worked on the massive building. There were no illegal immigrants at that time. If you could make it here, you could stay here." He then went on to say that "slaves that worked there were well-fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government, which stopped hiring slave labor in 1802. However, the feds did not forbid subcontractors from using slave labor. So Michelle Obama is essentially correct in citing slaves as builders of the White House, but there were others working as well."

And after schooling the Princeton- and Harvard-educated First Lady, O'Reilly helpfully asked viewers, "Got it all? There will be a quiz."

Oh, yeah, I think we got it. I think we got that Bill O'Reilly wants us to know that slaves got free food and housing. Weren't they were also, oh what's the phrase? Bought and sold and forced into labor?

To be more generous to O'Reilly than he deserves, one could say that he wanted to put an extra-fine point on Mrs. Obama's remarks, noting that the White House was not built entirely and exclusively by slaves. A normal person would have then shut up. But O'Reilly had to shrug off those payments made to slave masters — money received by white people who physically owned other human beings for the work done by black people -- and essentially declare that slaves had a pretty okay deal.

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The Daily News points out that the White House Historical Association, which describes the work slaves did on the building, makes no mention of how they were actually treated. And their residences were likely, by the way, "not much more than huts." To be fair to O'Reilly though, it's surprising, given his views on "welfare queens," that he didn't accuse the slaves of taking advantage of the government's generosity with all that free food and lodging.

The idea that slaves had it not so bad is not unique to O'Reilly. I remember the first time I went to Louisiana, 20 years ago, and hearing a docent at a historical house rhapsodize about how the owner's slaves could have left but didn't want to, because he was just so good to them. And the tone-deaf antebellum fantasy of a happy era of southern belles and balls persists in myriad ways, from Blake Lively to Paula Deen.

The PBS documentary series on "Africans in America" explained that while it may be safe to say that "Some masters and slaves genuinely cared for each other," that in no way mitigates that "The caring was tempered and limited by the power imbalance under which it grew." Do we really have to keep explaining that even slaves who may have been "well-fed" and had "decent lodging" were slaves? Do we really have to remind people that even if some masters behaved more humanely than others, we're talking about diaspora? We're talking about systematic, generations-long abuse of an entire race? I'll make it easy: Slavery is always bad. Slavery. Always. Bad. And as Shonda Rimes put it on Twitter Wednesday, "Bill: Chat about cuisine after they steal ur name, homeland, family then beat u, breed u and make u work for free." 

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Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Bill O'reilly Dnc 2016 Elections 2016 Michelle Obama Shonda Rimes Slavery Video

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