Simple Action

Posted March 7, 2005 at 3:32pm

When Congress really wants to get something done, it can happen fast, as witnessed by the swift passage of class-action legal reform, albeit after years of lobbying by business groups. Surely, though, it should not be taking years for Congressional leaders to do something so noncontroversial as to honor the slaves who helped build the Capitol.

But it has. When amateur historian Edward Hotaling uncovered evidence in 2000 that slave laborers played a major role in constructing the Capitol, lawmakers moved quickly to call for formal recognition of their service. Both the House and Senate passed resolutions establishing a task force to study the history and to devise an appropriate memorial.

But since then, as Roll Call reported Monday, the effort has stagnated completely. In February 2004, the Senate got around to appointing D.C. resident Virginia Walden-Ford to the task force, but no other members have been added. Walden-Ford said she has been in touch with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s (R-Tenn.) office and has hopes that other selections will be forthcoming so that the panel can begin meeting this spring.

A spokesman for Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) could not confirm whether a structure for the task force has been finalized, but claimed that Hastert’s office is working with the Senate “to move this issue forward.”

It’s long past time this got done, and there’s an obvious deadline for getting a memorial selected: the opening of the Capitol Visitor Center, which surely should contain notice of the slaves’ contribution in its historical exhibits. One proposed memorial is a model of the Statue of Freedom, which sits atop the Capitol Dome. This is deemed appropriate because slaves participated in casting the statue and the project was overseen by Philip Reid, himself a slave.

Hotaling, who discovered records of the slaves’ work while researching a television story on the Capitol’s 200th anniversary, suggests that an exhibit be matched by a “living memorial” — perhaps a lecture series or even a scholarship program for students studying construction trades or architecture.

Whatever the memorial turns out to be — and we can see the merit of both static and “living” ideas — inevitably it will take time, people and money to make it happen. This is another argument for prompt attention by Congressional leaders. Fortunately, some lawmakers are speaking up. “I do not understand why it is taking so long,” said Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a veteran of the civil rights movement who co-authored the task force legislation in the 106th Congress. “It’s very sad there has been so little action.” D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) is also mobilizing the Congressional Black Caucus behind the effort.

This is not a complicated subject like, say, Social Security reform. It should take Hastert’s and Frist’s offices only a few hours to restart this project. We urge them to do it.