NYT Editorial: Slavery's Place in the Capitol

Roundup: Talking About History

The Capitol’s mammoth new visitors’ center is a work in progress bedeviled by cost overruns and mounting delay. The $621 million project is not expected to be ready for tourists until next fall. But the House and Senate have set an encouraging standard, emphasizing the center’s educational mission by naming the main welcoming chamber Emancipation Hall. This honors long-forgotten African-American slaves forced to help build the original Capitol in the 18th and 19th centuries.

This is an overdue exercise of historical candor. Researchers found slaves were rented as Capitol labor by the federal government for $5 a month — the proceeds directly pocketed by local slave owners. “Negro hires” was the term used in the construction of what early on was called, no irony recorded, the “Temple of Liberty.” The slaves worked six days a week, 12 hours a day, quarrying stone, sawing timber and hauling supplies.

Until now, all they earned for this back-breaking labor was anonymity.

Emancipation Hall will be the main point of welcome for crowds of constituents in the 580,000-square-foot visitors’ center. It is expected to become a prime Washington destination, designed to handle greater throngs in a more secure, inspiring and informative setting. Amid all the towering patriotism depicted, exhibits are planned about the slaves’ lot of hardship and creativity in realizing the Capitol.

A slave named Philip Reid is credited with helping to cast the Statue of Freedom — the Capitol dome’s crowning decoration — after the original white craftsmen refused without a pay raise. Reid was ultimately made a free man by an act of Congress, the rare special-interest legislation that deserves to be cited in the new Emancipation Hall.

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