WASHINGTON – First lady Michelle Obama surprised children on a school field trip Wednesday when she visited the Decatur House.
The visit was part of the announcement of an American Express $1 million grant to the White House Historical Association,a non-profit dedicated to the preservation and study of the White House.
The money will go to restore the slave quarters at Decatur House,one of the few slave quarters still preserved in an urban area. The rest of the money will go to research and educational programs at the David M. Rubenstein National Center for White House History,also at Decatur House.
“From the back of the house,from a structure far less lavish,comes even more history. The kinds of stories that too often get lost,” Obama said at a news conference. “I’m talking about the slaves here at Decatur House who spent their lives within shouting distance of one of the most powerful buildings on the planet.”
Decatur House was built in 1818 one block north of the White House by Commodore Stephen Decatur Jr.,with money he was awarded for his victories in the War of 1812. It became the unofficial house of secretaries of state from 1827 to 1833. The National Trust for Historic Preservation owns the house and operates it as a museum.
“For nearly 200 years,as our country has grown and evolved,the Decatur House has grown with it,” Obama said. “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 while holding onto a quiet hope,a quiet prayer that they,too,and perhaps their children,would someday be free.”
American Express and the National Trust for Historic Preservation also donated $1 million to restore historical places in Washington metro area as part of the Partners in Preservation program. The public voted on social media to choose 13 out of 24 buildings to receive the funds. The Washington National Cathedral received the most votes and a grant of $100,000. The cathedral was damaged in the 2011 earthquake.
“As we were putting together the Partners in Preservation program,the Decatur House came to our attention. … So when we found out that they needed additional support to help restore those slave quarters,it seemed a good complement to our Partners in Preservation program,” Timothy McClimon,president of the American Express Foundation,said. “We felt that it was important to not only help preserve it but to make it available for children through the educational programs.”
After the announcement,Obama toured the house where she met with sixth-grade students from Willow Springs Elementary School in Fairfax,Va.,a Washington suburb.
The students were participating in one of the educational programs in which they impersonated President Abraham Lincoln and other historic characters and recreated the Emancipation Proclamation signing. The class will receive a DVD with their performance.
“The looks on their faces and the sounds were everything from screams of joy to crying,” Neil Hortsman,the White House Historical Association president,said.
The children knew they would have a special guest watching their performance but didn’t expect it to be the first lady.
“I was shocked. I thought that it wouldn’t be that important,” Jackson Smith,12,said. “I didn’t think they’d let us in for that.”
Emily Espinal,12, teared up when she saw the first lady.
“It was just like amazing! I’ve never experienced her in real life before,” Emily said. “She’s really cool.”
Reach reporter Barbara Corbellini Duarte at [email protected] or 202-326-9866. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.