Task Force Urges Honors for Slaves

Posted November 7, 2007 at 6:48pm

A Congressional task force concluded its two years of research and analysis Wednesday by recommending Congress create exhibits and publish documents to recognize the slaves who helped build the Capitol.

The research turned up little-known facts about the role of slaves in building what was known in the 1800s as the “Temple of Liberty.” Their tasks included hauling stone, laying brick and sawing timber in the hot sun — all for $60 a year paid to their white owners.

“We have evidence that slave laborers toiled in a harsh environment,” House Administration Chairman Robert Brady (D-Pa.) said. “Today we are here to shed some light to the true laborer, African-American slaves.”

To recognize these laborers, the task force put forward proposals that include printing pamphlets on the work assigned to slaves, training tour guides on the history and placing stone quarried by slaves in the Capitol Visitor Center.

“We look back today, not to open old wounds, but to ensure that we tell the story — the complete story — of those slaves so their toils are never forgotten,” said Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), chairman of the task force. “Slavery is a part of our nation’s history of which we are not proud. However, we should not run away or hide from it.”

Now, the task force, which includes scholars and Members, will present the report to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and begin searching for the funding to make it all happen.

“We’re going to need a sizable appropriation to do the work that we want to do,” Lewis said. However, task force members said they are still working on a specific number and were speaking with members of the House Appropriations Committee.

Some projects to recognize the slaves’ contribution already are under way. A bill introduced by Reps. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) and Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) would change the name of CVC’s Great Hall to Emancipation Hall — a move added to the task force’s recommendations at the last minute. The CVC’s Exhibition Hall also will include slaves in its recount of the Capitol’s history.

Members of the House Administration Committee were supportive of the recommendations, expressing hope that the projects will help Americans learn from its history. They also discussed other ideas, ranging from connecting the recognition of the slave laborers to current-day slavery across the globe to asking how it all fits in with where racism and equality stands today.

“There are always a few people down South that have the mind-set, ‘Well you don’t pick at old bumps,’” Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.) said. But telling the complete story of America is important, he added. “It is ultimately a story of triumph.”

The task force’s other recommendations are to put an exhibition in the Capitol on the experience of 19th-century blacks; create an online exhibit with similar information; publish the task force’s report online; and print brochure cards that highlight individual 19th-century blacks in the Capitol.

It will all help provide a connection to the Capitol and to the United States for black visitors, said Sarah Jean Davidson, a task force member and president of the Association for the Preservation of North Little Rock, Arkansas African-American History.

“When we look at the building, it’s not your building, the majority, it’s our building,” she said. “Once they start feeling that we are connected, we are one.”

Congress approved the task force in 2000, after Ed Hotaling, then a reporter for Washington’s WRC-TV, discovered pay stubs for slaves when researching the 200th anniversary of the Capitol’s reopening. Since then, the task force and the Architect of the Capitol’s office have put together a history of slaves’ contributions.