Congress honors African-American slaves who built United States capitol

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by Erica Brown

WASHINGTON (NNPA) —Members of Congress and distinguished guests packed the Rayburn Room of the U.S. capitol, anxiously awaiting Con­gress’ first formal commemoration of the African-American slaves who built the capitol.

Rep. John Lewis D-Ga., a renowned leader in the Civil Rights Movement and chairman of the Slave Task Force, an organization dedicated to commemorating the African-American contributions to the capitol, unveiled two plaques June 16, honoring the slaves whose labor greatly contributed to the alluring framework of the capitol building.

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FORMAL COMMEMORATION—Plaques recognizing the contributions of slave labor in the construction of the U.S. Capitol Building will be placed in Emancipation Hall in the Congressional Visitor’s ­Center.

“With these plaques…we recognize the blood, sweat and toil of the enslaved African-Americans that helped construct this embodiment of our democracy,” said Lewis. “…We are one step closer to realizing a dream of an all-inclusive and more perfect union.”

Lewis spoke graciously to the standing room audience and expressed the importance of the inclusion of the countless slave contributions to our nation’s history. “The history of the Capitol, like the history of our nation should be complete,” said Lewis. “Thousands of visitors walk through our nation’s capitol without knowing the true history of its construction. Today that changes”.

Along with Lewis, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid further emphasized Congress’ responsibility to expose the history of the nation’s capitol in its entirety. “In this place, where so much American history is written, it is our duty to ensure that none of it, no matter how foul, is erased from our national memory,” said Reid.

Historians have concluded that African-American slaves were rented from their respective owners, and labored for 12-hours a day, six days a week, year round to construct the building. These enslaved Americans were not individually compensated for their labor, but their owners were afforded five dollars per month for their services. Lewis challenged the audience to, “Just imagine, the United States government paying your owner, not you, but your owner, five dollars a month for your labor.”

Senate Republican Leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, expressed his gratitude to the countless African-American slaves who constructed the capitol and he acknowledged the ingenious efforts of Philip Reid.

After an Italian sculptor refused to dismantle the Statue of Freedom unless compensated more money, it was a slave, Philip Reid, who was the only one who could propose a solution to successfully disassemble the statue.

“It is largely because of him [Reid] that this great symbol of freedom now sits at the top of the capitol dome,” said McConnell. He further emphasized the irony relating to the many enslaved Americans of that time. “The story of Philip Reid underscores one of the great ironies of this building’s construction, and that’s the irony of the workman helping to cast the Statue of Freedom, who was not himself free.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and Lewis carefully unveiled the two plaques that read: “This original exterior wall was constructed between 1793 and 1800 of sandstone quarried by laborers, including enslaved African-Americans, who were an important part of the workforce that built the United States Capitol.” This physical commemoration of African-American slave labor will be placed in Emancipation Hall in the Congressional Visitor’s Center.

Members of the audience were elated and proud that lawmakers finally acknowledged the monumental efforts of African-American slaves.

“It is a recognition by leaders of our nation that this nation was built by African-Americans,” said Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee. “It’s a good testament that the nation is ready to heal those wounds…in a way that recognizes sacrifice.”

Hilary Shelton, Washington Bureau director of the NAACP, said, “Having Congress acknowledge this…is something that every African-American needs to bear and understand.” He expressed the importance of our nation’s recognition of slavery and its impact on the capitol. “It’s so important that we recognize [slavery] a part of our history,” Shelton added.

Pelosi gave closing remarks acknowledging the slaves whose sacrifices have been overlooked. “These masons, carpenters, painters and others gave us this house of liberty and this beacon of hope for our nation,” she said. “Never again will their contribution go unrecognized”.

(Erica Brown is a NNPA special correspondent.)

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