Friday, July 3, 2009

The White House

By: Anonymous #1
HS 129, Summer 1 2009

During the inauguration earlier this year of the first African-American President of the United States, the media spoke of the irony of the President being sworn in on the very stone that slave laborers had placed nearly 200 years before. When considering African-American historical sites in and around the Washington area to research for this assignment, the U.S. Capitol interested me because historically, not much attention has been paid to the fact that the building was constructed in part by slaves. This is likely due to the fact that because such few relevant historical sources survive, relatively little is known about their involvement.

The U.S. Capitol is perhaps one of the most recognizable symbols of American democracy, and the center of the dome marks the very center of the nation’s capital. The many visitors that come to admire the Capitol’s rotunda, beautiful grounds, art, and history are largely unaware of the people who helped build the seat of our government back in the early 19th century.

In a 2005 report to Congress, William C. Allen an architectural historian with the Architect of the Capitol attempted to uncover and make public what is known about the slaves that labored to build the Capitol. Most of the information regarding slave labor and the Capitol’s construction concerns only the time period from 1790-1800, when the Capitol’s North Wing (Senate side) was completed. After that date, there are few historical references to slave labor, although it was most likely continually used.

The area that would become known as the District of Columbia was at that time a rural backwater with a scarce population and an agriculture-based economy. In order to turn this land into a world-class capital city as George Washington wished to do, a steady supply of manpower was necessary. Both the limited population and agrarian workforce posed a challenge to this, but one thing the area did possess was a very large number of slaves.

The commissioners (all slave-owners, incidentally) who were tasked by Washington to manage the city’s construction rented slaves from local owners to help build the Capitol and other public buildings. (Allen, 3) Because there were not many carpenters, stone masons, architects, and engineers, many had to be imported from elsewhere. Those who were hired and placed in charge of these various aspects of construction rented slaves to assist in quarrying stone, carpentry, mortar making, brick laying, sawing, painting, and clearing timber. Many slaves were hired as indentured servants who were rewarded for their work with their freedom.

Two prominent black men involved in the planning of the capital city and the construction of the capital were Benjamin Banneker and Philip Reid. Banneker, who we read about in Chapter 4 of our textbook, a free mathematician and astronomer, worked with head surveyor Andrew Ellicott as he laid the boundary stones that would mark the ten square mile area of the District of Columbia. Allen writes that Philip Reid was “the best known black person associated with the Capitol’s construction history.” (Allen, 15)

Reid, a slave, left the most lasting and most visible evidence of slave labor on the Capitol’s exterior, ironically named the Statue of Freedom. Reid was a slave laborer in a foundry run by a well-known sculptor from South Carolina, Clark Mills, who came to the District in the 1840s with Reid and was commissioned to cast a bronze statue of Andrew Jackson near the President’s House in Lafayette Park. In 1860, he was commissioned to cast the Statue of Freedom to crown the top of the Capitol’s newly completed dome. Reid played an important role in readying the plaster mold for the final casting, transporting, and assembling the statue before it was placed in its permanent home, where it remains today. (Allen, 16) In fact, this is one of the few aspects of the Capitol’s exterior relating to slavery that still exists today, and it can be seen in the accompanying photographs.

As Allen writes, “Philip Reid’s story is one of the greatest ironies in the Capitol’s history: a workman helping to cast a noble allegorical representation of American freedom when he himself was not free.” (Allen, 16) The same can be said of all the slaves who labored to build a glorified home for the treasured American ideals of liberty and equality – values that they themselves likely never experienced.

Works Cited:
History of Slave Laborers in the Construction of the United States Capitol, William C. Allen, Architectural Historian, Office of the Architect of the Capitol' June 1, 2005.

Cultural Tourism DC.

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