Washington – Even though George Washington laid the ceremonial first brick of the U.S. Capitol, the people that did most of the dangerous, back-breaking construction under the hot sun of the Potomac weren’t considered full citizens. In fact, they weren’t considered full people.
For about 220 years, the fact that enslaved African-Americans built the U.S. Capitol is rarely mentioned and never recognized. Until now.
The leaders of both parties of the Senate and the House of Representatives gathered on Wednesday to unveil a plaque honoring the slaves who helped build the U.S. Capitol.
“In the words of President Lincoln: ‘We cannot escape history,'” said the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. “And with this plaque, we embrace history. We celebrate it.”
Long time civil rights activist U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) was the head of the task force designated to recognize these slaves. He said the plaques would “shed light on a long-hidden truth” and give these African-Americans the recognition they deserve.
After centuries in existence, including when both the White House and Capitol were burned by the British in the War of 1812, the plaque is the first to formally recognize the contributions of slaves in the construction of much of Washington’s historic landmarks.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) praised these men for constructing the Capitol with “graceful designs,” while building a symbol of a freedom that they didn’t have.
The task force is “helping to make sure that future generations continue to tell the whole story of this place and of our nation,” said Republican Leader of the Senate Mitch McConnell.
For Jesse Holland, author of “Black Men Built the Capitol”, this commemoration is long overdue.
“Congress’s actions will bring to life the contributions of African-American slaves, not only in the Capitol, but to other buildings in D.C.,” Holland said.
Holland said the fact that slaves built the White House also remains unrecognized by many. However, he applauds Congress’ decision to name the Capitol’s visitors center as Proclamation Hall, in dedication to slaves who helped build the Capitol.
“Putting up this plaque is another step in trying to acknowledge some of the heart of history that has been overlooked,” he said.
As Holland sat in attendance of the unveiling, he knew that work was still to be done and debt still owed to many former slaves who constructed buildings throughout the U.S.
“As we look back over the history of the country, the contributions of African-American slaves have not been acknowledged,” Holland said.
Wednesday’s plaque unveiling ceremony changed that.