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House Panel Told Ways to Commemorate Use of Slave Labor to Build Capitol

Tours, exhibits and commemorative plaques in the Capitol should recognize the contributions of slaves in constructing Congress’ home, experts told a House committee Wednesday.

Such citations would help encourage Blacks to make a historical connection to the building, a congressional task force said.

Sarah Jean Davidson, founder of the Association for the Preservation of North Little Rock, Ark., African American History, said Blacks and others feel the Capitol and some historic buildings belong more to whites.

“We can say our ancestors helped build the Capitol so when we look at it, it’s not ‘your building, the majority’, it’s our building,” Davidson said.

“It will be a connection not just for African-Americans, but for immigrants who come from all around the country. … Once they start feeling connected, then we are one,” she said.

Congress created a task force to commemorate slaves’ work on the Capitol. Panelists recommended that the history be included in guided tours, educational materials, exhibits, plaques and showcases in the Capitol Visitors Center.

The recommendations were released at a hearing of the House Administration Committee.

“We look back today not to open wounds, but to ensure that we tell the story of those slaves so their toil is never forgotten,” said Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga. “We cannot allow our citizens to leave without an appreciation for the efforts of slaves who helped build our ‘Temple of Freedom.'”

Financial records of the District of Columbia show that hundreds of local residents received payments for the slaves’ work, said William Allen, the architectural historian of the Architect of the Capitol’s office.

The ledger recorded the payments as “Negro hire,” Allen said.

Many worked in quarries where they extracted the stone for the building. Others provided carpentry skills. Some slaves were stationed in pits from where, with a partner above ground, they would use a whipsaw to saw logs rolled over the pit. Slave women and children were used to mold clay in kilns, Allen said.

On the Net:

House Administration Committee:

Architect of the Capitol:

Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture:

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