HISTORY IS full of surprises. Just when you think the past is safely
behind you, some inquisitive soul discovers yet a few more pieces of
paper that recasts how you look at our nation's history.
Consider our country's Capitol. Next time you visit Washington,
D.C., gaze up at the bronze statue perched on top of the dome. It is
called ``Freedom.'' Yet few admiring visitors know that 12 slaves not
only cast the statue, but also devised a method for hoisting it up to
its present pinnacle. Nor do most visitors know that some 400 slaves
also built the Capitol Building and the White House as well.
The legacy of slavery, which has so profoundly affected our
society and culture, is still being revealed.
Historians have long known that the slave trade flourished in the
nation's capital until 1865. But they knew few details about the
slaves who worked in Washington, D.C.
While researching the 200th anniversary of the White House and the
Capitol, Edward Hotaling, a local Washington-based television
reporter, unearthed pay slips dating from 1792 to 1800 in the
archives of the Treasury Department. Each pay slip bears the name of
the plantation owner, as well as the $5-monthly wage paid for the
work of his slave.
Now, two centuries after George Washington established the
nation's capital, lawmakers and historians are trying to decide
how to publicly acknowledge the fact that slaves, whose names are
still not known, and who were never paid, constructed the nation's
most distinguished architectural symbols of freedom.
The revelation of this new evidence has inspired two African
America members of Congress, Reps. J.C Watts, R-Okla., and John
Lewis, D-Ga., to launch a campaign to create some kind of memorial to
the slaves who built the nation's Capitol. Said Lewis, ``We need to
find a fitting and lasting memorial for these men in the building
they built. It is strange and very sad that the men who laid the
foundation of the best-known symbol of our democracy were denied the
right to participate in our democracy.''
Together, Watts and Lewis, erstwhile ideological adversaries, have
called upon Congress to form a task force to examine the
contributions of these unpaid slaves and recommend what type of
permanent exhibition of memorial should mark their accomplishments.
Too few Americans realize that slaves not only built the South,
but also created the wealth of the North, too. The crime of slavery,
moreover, has created a national wound that has never healed. The
more we acknowledge the heinous reality of the past, the more we will
understand why the legacy of slavery still haunts us today.
©2000 San Francisco Chronicle