A `Capitol' effort by laborers

`From Freedom's Shadow' exhibit examines role of slaves, free blacks in construction of U.S. Capitol


February 04, 2007|By Celia C. Peters | Celia C. Peters,Special to the Sun

Thousands of tourists flock to the U.S. Capitol in Washington each year to see the symbol of liberty firsthand, but few know the stately structure was built by African-Americans who were shut out of the very freedom that the building is meant to embody.

The facts about who built the structure were often overlooked, but are now being unveiled in the exhibit From Freedom's Shadow: African Americans and the United States Capitol, curated by Felicia Bell, director of education and outreach for the United States Capitol Historical Society.

The traveling display, which is being shown at the Howard County central library in Columbia, documents the role of enslaved and free blacks in constructing the U.S. Capitol building.

Bell, a doctoral candidate in U.S. history at Howard University, decided to do the research after a tour of the Capitol, which she says did not include information on how slave labor was used to shape it.

"A lot of times we overlook the contributions of laborers. A lot of times the planners or the architects are given all the credit," she says. "I think that's the basis of the problem. It's just the way that history is told -- from a top-down approach and an elitist perspective. Particularly, enslaved labor seems to be part of American history that many Americans want to forget."

Using detailed historical documents from various sources including the National Archives, the From Freedom's Shadow exhibit chronicles the experiences of African-Americans laborers -- carpenters, sawyers, blacksmiths, bricklayers and brickmakers -- who built the majestic structure that is home to Congress.

From the surveying team -- which included inventor Benjamin Banneker, the son of an ex-slave -- to the hauling and assembly of its raw materials, blacks were integral to the construction of the Capitol, the exhibit says.

From 1794 to 1800, records show that those overseeing the project "rented" slaves to do manual labor. Slaveowners received payment for the slaves' labor; the slaves themselves were paid only for work done at night, on Sundays or on holidays.

Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, who would later head the Confederacy, objected to the original Statue of Freedom that tops the Capitol dome -- because, in his eyes, the liberty cap on the original statue's head was "the badge of a freed slave."

Sculptor Thomas Crawford changed the liberty cap to a helmet, but it was a slave named Philip Reid who had the important job of taking the plaster model of the Freedom statue apart without damaging it, and then casting each section in bronze.

The exhibit also highlights the tenure of 22 black congressmen who served between 1870 and 1901, after the passage of the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery.

It also tells how Southern states passed laws to discriminate against blacks, preventing them from being elected to office from 1901 to 1929.

The exhibit moves through the civil rights era into present day, showcasing what is being done to diversify the Capitol building's history through the contributions of African-American murals, statues and paintings.

According to the exhibit, "a bronze bust of Martin Luther King Jr. was placed in the Rotunda in 1986. The Senate acquired a portrait of Senator Blanche K. Bruce in 2002. The House of Representatives unveiled a portrait of Congressman Joseph H. Rainey in 2005, and in November 2005, Congress authorized a statue of Rosa Parks to be added to Statuary Hall."

"There have been several historians who've written about the history of the Capitol," Bell says. "The society is simply pursuing this area of the Capitol's history that is conspicuously missing from the vast body of literature. We want to make the history of the Capitol more complete. [The exhibit] will allow the public to see a part of American history they weren't aware of."

The exhibit was unveiled last February at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture. It has since traveled around Maryland and Washington to public schools and buildings.

It made a stop last summer at the Maryland State Law Library in Annapolis.

Steve Anderson, director of the library in Annapolis, said visitors were in awe of what they learned.

"It was an overwhelmingly positive experience. I think the viewers ... learned a lot that they didn't know about the history of this country," he says.


"From Freedom's Shadow" will be on display at the Howard County central library, 10375 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia, through Friday. For a list of 2007 tour stops, go to www.uschs.org.

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