‘Emancipation Hall’ Takes One Step Closer

Posted October 30, 2007 at 6:30pm

The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is scheduled today to mark up legislation that would change the name of the Capitol Visitor Center’s Great Hall to Emancipation Hall in honor of the slaves who helped build the Capitol.

The measure, introduced in August by Reps. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) and Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), had garnered a bipartisan mix of 227 co-sponsors as of Tuesday afternoon.

Members of the Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management unanimously voted Tuesday morning to send the bill to the full committee.

Subcommittee Chairwoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) praised the bill as a way to honor slaves who have received little to no recognition for their role in helping to build the Capitol.

“Naming the CVC’s Great Hall in honor of slave laborers is long overdue, but still will be a token of the respect these blacks never received,” Norton said.

Even though he voted in favor of the bill, subcommittee ranking member Sam Graves (R-Mo.) said he hopes Democrats will work to address concerns put forth by Transportation and Infrastructure ranking member John Mica (R-Fla.).

During a subcommittee hearing last month, Mica said he agrees with the idea of naming a room in the CVC after the slaves who built the Capitol but doesn’t think the Great Hall is the place to do it.

Instead, he suggested using the name for the CVC’s Exhibition Hall — which will tell the story of Congress through a variety of documents and artifacts — or for the Congressional Auditorium, which will serve an an alternate chamber for Members.

Mica could not be reached for comment by press time Tuesday. But a spokesman did confirm that he will attend today’s markup and plans to address his concerns.

He is certain to get some criticism from fellow Members. At last month’s subcommittee hearing, Jackson argued that relegating the name to a room situated off to the side of the hall would be an insult to the slaves whose contribution to the Capitol’s history have gone unnoticed for so long.

Whatever its name eventually winds up being, the hall is considered to be the architectural center of the CVC.

Among the first places visitors will see once they pass through security, the hall will serve as a new gathering place on the Capitol complex. Several pieces of the Statuary Hall collection are expected to be moved there, and the Capitol Dome will be visible through the hall’s skylights.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) has introduced a similar bill making a name change in the Senate. In the House, legislation to make the change was included as part of the legislative branch appropriations bill, but because the Senate has yet to pass a companion motion, a separate measure was introduced to speed the process along.

Wamp will have a full Tuesday morning dealing with CVC issues. At 10 a.m., the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch is scheduled to hold its monthly oversight hearing on the facility, which currently is scheduled to open at a price tag of $621 million in November 2008.

The future of staff-led tours likely is to be the focus of that hearing. CVC administrative officials have said staff-led tours in their current form likely will disappear once the facility opens. Instead, staffers will join Capitol Guide Service employees on tours, stepping in only to point out specific points of interest.

An array of Members in both chambers have protested that plan, including Appropriations subcommittee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who asked key CVC officials to present alternative plans during today’s hearing.