Last Thursday, on the eve of Juneteenth, the celebration of the end of slavery, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution apologizing for slavery and the “Jim Crow” laws that oppressed ex-slaves and their descendants for roughly a century.
The resolution (full text), which also has a cowardly disclaimer at the bottom stating the apology can’t be used to substantiate any restitution claims against the U.S., cites the fact that “Africans forced into slavery were brutalized, humiliated, dehumanized, and subjected to the indignity of being stripped of their names and heritage” and lauds African-Americans for exemplifying “the strength of the human character and provid[ing] a model of courage, commitment, and perseverance.”
But the resolution neglected to mention one big fact: the Senate building that they stood in to vote in favor of this apology was built with black slave labor!
In 2005, Congress appointed a task force to research the subject, which issued a report in conjunction with the Office of the Architect of the Capitol, finally bringing a measure of scholarly rigor to bear on the topic.
The task force acknowledged it was not able to tell the full story. “No one will ever know how many slaves helped to build the United States Capitol Building — or the White House,” says the 2005 task force report, entitled History of Slave Laborers in the Construction of the United States Capitol.
But the task force did find plenty of evidence of slave involvement in the Capitol’s construction. Perhaps the most compelling evidence were records of payments from the commissioners for the District of Columbia — the three men appointed by George Washington to oversee the construction of the Capitol and the rest of the city of Washington — to slave owners for the rental of slaves to work on the Capitol. The records reflect 385 payments between 1795 and 1801 for “Negro hire,” a euphemism for the yearly rental of slaves.
Slaves were likely involved in all aspects of construction, including carpentry, masonry, carting, rafting, plastering, glazing and painting, the task force reported. And slaves appear to have shouldered alone the grueling work of sawing logs and stones.
Slave crews also toiled at the marble and sandstone quarries that provided the stone to face the structure — lonely, grueling work with bleak living conditions in rural Virginia and elsewhere. “Keep the yearly hirelings at work from sunrise to sunset — particularly the Negroes,” the commissioners wrote to quarry operator William O’Neale in 1794.
The commissioners’ use of slave labor was unremarkable for the time. When the Capitol was constructed, from 1793 to 1826, the building trades in almost every colony augmented the work force with slave labor. This would have been especially true in the Potomac region — the home of about half the 750,000 African-Americans living in the United States, according to the 1972 book Free Negroes in the District of Columbia, by Letitia Woods Brown.
Most of the slaves who worked on the Capitol are known by first name at best — the records refer to a
payment of $13.00 to slaveholder Teresa Bent for “Nace,” for example, and $23.00 to Elizabeth Brent for “Harry” and “Gabe.”
But one particular slave, Philip Reid, achieved some renown as an individual. He was a slave laborer for Clark Mills, who was hired to cast the Statue of Freedom, the Capitol’s crowning feature. The government paid Reid $1.25 a day for his work.
The statue, a draped female figure holding a sheathed sword in one hand and a laurel wreath in the other, stands atop the Capitol dome, 288 feet above the site of Obama’s swearing in.
The resolution should have also included, “Whereas, Africans, without any remuneration, built the Capitol building we now work in each day…”
People should know ALL of their history.