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Memorial Eyed For Slaves Who Built US Capitol

Mar 11, 2006
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This is an older article, but I found it interesting to post nevertheless, given America's history of slavery. Amazing that many racist whites would call the majority of blacks "lazy":

Memorial eyed for slaves who helped build Capitol By Melanie Eversley, USA TODAY
Tue Feb 28, 8:04 AM ET

The statue crowning the U.S. Capitol is called "Freedom." Yet it was a black slave who figured out how to coax apart the 19½-foot, 15,000-pound plaster statue so it could be cast in bronze and rejoined atop the dome.

Slaves, in fact, helped build much of the building and grounds of Congress, their owners earning $5 per month for their work. Ed Hotaling, a retired TV reporter in Washington, was among the first to widely publicize this in a report in 2000.

Following Hotaling's lead, a task force is planning a permanent memorial to the hundreds of slaves who helped build the Capitol from the late 1700s until the mid-1800s. The group will make recommendations to House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and Sen. Ted Stevens (news, bio, voting record), R-Alaska, president pro tempore of the Senate.

During February, Black History Month, task force members have been particularly focused on their role and have shared ideas by telephone as they prepare to meet.

The final cost and form of the memorial is still undetermined. It could be a site on the Capitol grounds or a living memorial such as an annual traditional African ceremony to honor the slaves.

"I don't think the story of the Capitol would be fully told until we have something depicting the lives of the people who helped build it," says Rep. John Lewis (news, bio, voting record), D-Ga., a student leader during the civil rights movement. Lewis and J.C. Watts, a Republican former member of Congress from Oklahoma, set up the task force.

Currie Ballard, a historian at Langston University in Oklahoma and a task force member who favors a living memorial, says it is fitting that the effort also inform people about the country's African- American heritage.

"It's so apropos that America says, 'Yes, a wrong has been committed, and let's educate people that black people have made a significant contribution to America,' " Ballard says.

Slavery in Washington was different from slavery in the rural South, says Walter Hill, senior archivist and African-American history specialist with the National Archives. Households had smaller groups of slaves, eight or nine, and the men and women often were skilled artisans. Owners hired out their slaves to earn money.

In the late 1700s, when a federal commission began planning to build the Capitol, it hired slaves to work alongside free black and white workers. The idea was to keep free workers from complaining about their conditions by bringing in competition, says historian Bob Arnebeck, an expert on the construction of the Capitol.

It is interesting to see how they used slaves to keep the "free" worker complaints in check. Likely, those complaints would have been legitimate.

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