D.C.’s Black History Revealed

Book Is Part History Lesson, Part Travel Guide

Posted October 1, 2007 at 2:55pm

Most D.C. residents probably have heard that the Capitol’s Statue of Freedom was built by slaves, but how many really know the truth behind the tale?

This question and dozens of others are answered in Jesse J. Holland’s new book, “Black Men Built the Capitol.”

Holland informs his readers that slaves did in fact build the statue that sits atop the Capitol, as well as much of the building itself and the surrounding monuments, with their earnings going to the slave owners rather than the men who actually worked on the structure.

A cross between a history book and a travel guide, the tome unmasks dozens of facts and stories about the role black people have played in the construction of Washington, D.C., Maryland and

Virginia. The book talks about everything from slaves building the Capitol and White House to Freedman’s Village, which was located where Arlington National Cemetery is today.

“As I kept working [in Washington] I kept seeing more and more of these things that I was surprised that no one knew about,” said Holland, a self-proclaimed history buff.

Holland said the idea to write the book came to him after many visits from family and friends. In the prologue, he says he would take them on tours of the city and they would wonder where the black monuments were. Frustrated by the lack of black history on display in Washington, Holland began writing the book, which he says is designed to feel like the reader is driving around town with him looking at monuments and buildings. The product, he says, is a book with an original approach to the District’s history.

“A lot of the material exists, it’s just in little pieces,” he said. “I could never find one source for the history.”

Holland took an unpaid leave of absence from his position as a political writer with The Associated Press in February 2006 and began writing his book without a publisher.

“I have to admit, I took a pretty big leap in leaving a steady paycheck to attempt to write ‘Black Men Built The Capitol’ with no guarantee that it would ever be published or that I would ever make one penny back out of the time I put into it,” Holland said.

He spent about three months sending out book proposals only to receive a stack of rejection letters. It wasn’t until early July that Globe Pequot expressed interest in the book.

The contract “was concrete affirmation of my idea that the African-American history of the Capitol, White House and National Mall was not only interesting to African Americans in Washington, D.C., but to all Americans all around the country,” he said.

Holland spent time researching in the Library of Congress and National Archives, while also talking to the Senate historian and Capitol curator. “I pretty much lived in libraries for a year,” he joked.

Holland’s favorite story from the book is of Sojourner Truth, a freed black woman who sued a white streetcar driver for shoving her and refusing to let her ride shortly after the Civil War ended. Truth sued the driver for assault and battery and won in D.C. court, bringing the city one step closer to integration.

“That’s an amazing story!” Holland said. “It’s hard to find anything about it in D.C.”

As for what’s next, Holland says he has more ideas than time, estimating that it would take three years to write another book since he would have to balance a new baby and a full-time job.

“I’m working on several projects,” he said. “But I don’t expect anything to culminate anytime soon.”