USA Today
Slave history part of oath site

US Capitol Statue
Philip Reid, a slave at a bronze foundry, supervised
the casting of "Freedom," the statue atop the Capitol.
This replica sits in the Russell Senate Office Building.

By Heather Wines, Garnett
News Service

J.C. Watts
Rep. J.C. Watts was a leader in the efforts to
commemorate the work of slaves who helped
build the U.S. Capitol.

US Capitol
This image from 1863 shows work on the statue
above the Capitol dome in Washington.

USA Today
By by Traci Watson     January 19, 2009

WASHINGTON Living in nearby huts, hundreds of African-American slaves worked six and sometimes seven days a week to build the U.S. Capitol. They felled trees to clear the site. They sawed logs and molded bricks. They quarried stone for the Corinthian columns.

Tuesday, Barack Hussein Obama the USA's first African-American president will be sworn in as the 44th president on the west steps of the Capitol, a building that symbolizes freedom but was erected by those who had none.

Though Obama himself has no known slaves among his ancestors, he will stand to take the oath of office with three family members who do: his wife and two daughters. Michelle Obama's great-great-grandfather worked in slavery on a South Carolina rice plantation before being freed during the Civil War.

"It's an amazing journey," says Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a member of a congressional task force on commemorating the enslaved builders.

Bettye Gardner, another task force member and a history professor at Coppin State University, says " 'significant' isn't even a big enough word."

Slaves for hire

When the Capitol was first being erected in the late 1700s, the surrounding region was deeply rural. There were no nearby cities, and labor was scarce. It was difficult to recruit workers to the isolated, barren spot.

The builders of the Capitol turned to slaves. At the time, the region had the nation's highest population of slaves, most of them working on large grain farms, says Ira Berlin, a University of Maryland expert on slavery.

Conveniently for Washington officials, slave owners often "hired out" their slaves, especially during the winter and in the slow season between planting and harvest. The use of slaves to build a structure that would soon be nicknamed "The Temple of Liberty" would have excited little opposition or outrage, Berlin says.

"Slave labor (was) suffused throughout this society," he says. Slaves were "one of the main forces of labor. You (couldn't) do anything without slaves being involved in one way or another."

The total number of slaves who worked on the Capitol is impossible to pin down, but documents show that as many as 800 slaves at one time worked there, says Felicia Bell of the U.S. Capitol Historical Society. Most were put to work at onerous, relatively unskilled tasks.

The enslaved workers were rented from local slave owners for $60 or $70 a year. They would've been first-, second- or even third-generation Americans descended mostly from west Africans, as were most U.S. slaves, Berlin says.

Little is known about them except, in some cases, their first names, which appear on receipts now on file at the National Archives. The receipts do list the full names of the owners, who include a merchant, a future mayor of Washington and the architect who designed the White House.

The slaves who worked on the Capitol, like others who were "hired out," were wrenched from their families, but their situation did offer them some compensation, Bell says. They earned small sums for working on Sundays and holidays and some got the chance to learn a trade, such as carpentry.

"It gave these men some autonomy and quasi-freedom," Bell says. "And it broke up the monotony of working on a plantation, which was incredibly boring."

'Smart in mind'

Before 1802, the use of slaves at the Capitol is documented in receipts and payrolls. Then the document trail virtually ends, leaving almost no written evidence for slave labor there in the 19th century. Even so, "it would have been nearly impossible" for slaves not to have been involved in construction of the Capitol, where expansions and major renovations lasted until the 1860s, according to a 2005 report by the Office of the Architect of the Capitol.

The sections of the Capitol that historians know were built with slaves' help have largely vanished, the victims of a fire set by British troops in 1814 and the following renovations and expansions. More recent additions can't be firmly documented as the work of slaves. As a result, only a few parts of the Capitol visible today are certifiably the result of slave labor.

One place where the handiwork of slaves is visible is the Capitol's Statuary Hall, a former meeting place for the House of Representatives that has been turned into an art gallery. There smooth, highly polished marble columns soar three stories high. The stone was quarried by African Americans rented from local slave owners, according to the Architect of the Capitol's report.

One African American known to have worked on the Capitol into the 1860s is also the best-known of any of the slaves who labored there.

Philip Reid was purchased as a boy in South Carolina by Clark Mills, a self-taught sculptor who also ran a foundry. Though illiterate, Reid was "smart in mind and a good workman," by Mills' own account in his petition for government reimbursement after Reid and the other slaves in the District of Columbia were emancipated.

In a great irony, the enslaved Reid was responsible for figuring out how to finish work on the statue "Freedom" that now sits atop the Capitol's dome. When it came time to cast the statue in bronze, the only workman who knew how to take apart the original plaster model of the statue for casting refused to do so until offered more pay.

Reid came to the rescue. He figured out how to use a block and tackle to tease apart the delicate plaster figure, revealing its joints so it could be disassembled as planned. The completed statue was lifted to its perch on the Capitol in 1863. By then Reid was a free man, liberated in 1862 along with the other slaves in the District of Columbia.

The story of Reid and his lesser-known colleagues attracted little notice until within the past 10 years. Then Washington TV reporter and author Ed Hotaling began to publicize records he had unearthed that spoke to the crucial role of enslaved workers in constructing the Capitol.

At the recommendation of the task force on recognizing contribution of slaves, Congress named the grand space at the center of the new Capitol Visitors Center "Emancipation Hall." Tour guides in the Capitol have been schooled in the role that slaves played.

Lewis says he and Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., plan to introduce a bill early this year to place a monument in the Capitol to the men and women who, denied liberty themselves, laid the bricks and extracted the marble for one of the most universal symbols of democracy.

"When slaves were helping to build the Capitol and the White House there might have been a flutter of hope somewhere that someday America would live out the true meaning of its creation," says former congressman J.C. Watts, R-Okla. While in office, he helped lead efforts to commemorate the Capitol's enslaved workers.

Now, Watts says, "it has happened."


Return to Home Page