Historian Discusses D.C.’s Black Labor History

Posted February 11, 2003 at 2:22pm

The largely unknown role of black workers in the construction of the Capitol, the White House and other public buildings in Washington, D.C., will be discussed today.

Robert Kapsch, senior scholar in historic architecture and historic engineering for the National Park Service, will explain black labor history in a slide lecture titled, “The Role of African Americans in Construction of the Public Buildings of the New Federal City: 1791-1817.”

The event, held at noon today in the ground floor conference room of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Building, 200 Maryland Ave. NE, in conjunction with Black History Month, will use a bottom-up approach to examine the often-forgotten history of black labor.

Washington was the world’s first modern, planned capital city and “African Americans had a major role in its construction,” Kapsch said. Over half of the 650 workers were black. Kapsch attributes this large number of laborers to Washington’s less-restrictive slavery laws that allowed free blacks to earn a living.

While the history of America’s forefathers such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington is well-documented, the contributions of black workers in the capital city has gone largely unnoticed. African Americans like Benjamin Banneker, a free mathematician who surveyed the boundaries of the District in 1791, and Philip Reid, a slave whose mechanical expertise was used to place the Statue of Freedom on the Capitol dome in 1863, are examples of the contributions by blacks to the construction of the capital city.

“Most of the written history focused on the roles of Jefferson and Washington because they left diaries and other written documents,” Kapsch said. “It’s very hard to write African-American history because you have to dig a lot deeper.”

Kapsch plans to use slides to illustrate the building of D.C. from its roots. Although no original artwork of construction by black workers is known to survive, most of Kapsch’s presentation will feature slides of Washington in the late 1790s and early 1800s, with one illustration of a workman on the Capitol.

The lecture is being offered by the U.S. Capitol Historical Society. For more information, go online to www.uschs.org.