The U.S. Congress will acknowledge the role of slave labor in building the U.S. Capitol Building in a ceremony scheduled for Wednesday, June 16, reports the Afro American. Slaves helped build the Capitol and were also involved in the construction of the White House, working as carpenters, masons and manual laborers.
The event is scheduled to take place in the Rayburn Room and will be attended by the leadership of the Democratic and Republican parties.
Black historians have long known of the involvement of slaves in the construction of federal buildings, however efforts to acknowledge and honor the role of slave labor began in earnest after a Washington TV journalist reported new evidence while doing research for the Capitol’s bicentennial celebrations.
“A USA Today story filed by Melanie Eversley on February 27, 2006, entitled ‘Memorial Eyed for Slaves Who Helped Build Capitol’ reports that Ed Hotaling, a retired Washington TV reporter, was among the first to bring widespread attention to the fact that slaves were an integral part of the construction of the U.S. Capitol, building and grounds, after he discovered historical information about it back in 2000.”
A task force was established by Congress in 2005 to study the issue and later recommended that the great hall in the Capitol Visitor Center be named Emancipation Hall. “The name change became official on December 22, 2007 by Public Law 110-139.”
The House of Representatives attempted to address the issue in 2009 with a resolution that was opposed by only one vote, Rep. Stephen King (R-Iowa).
In 2008, the House of Representatives passed a non-binding resolution apologizing for slavery and the era of Jim Crow. The resolution acknowledged that vestiges of Jim Crow remain.
The Congressional Black Caucus is currently urging the federal government to address some of these problems by passing summer jobs legislation particularly for Black and Latino youth.
Slaves involved in the construction were “rented” from area plantations. Over 400 were involved in the construction. The slaves were paid $5 a month which was turned over to their owners. Both Maryland and Virginia, which abut the federal enclave, were slave states. Several U.S. presidents were slave owners and brought their slaves to work in the White House.
The White House and the U.S. Department of Justice is currently stepping up efforts to enforce civil rights laws.
Photo: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, left, and First Lady Michelle Obama will help dedicate the plaque honoring slave labor that built the U.S. Capitol. (CC)