Jesse Holland on How Slaves Built the White House and the US Capitol
From Holland Book link to image
excerpt from Democracy Now
January 21, 2009
Associated Press reporter Jesse Holland. He is author of Black Men Built the Capitol: Discovering African-American History In and Around Washington, D.C.
JESSE HOLLAND: Standing out there in front of the US Capitol will be Barack Obama, who will become the most powerful man in the United States, an African American president. But he is going to be standing in front of a building that was created and built by some of the least powerful people in the United States: African American slaves.
Through research, we’ve been able to determine that just about 400 of the more than 600 people who worked on the construction of the Capitol were African American slaves. Maybe another fifty or so were African American freedmen. These are people who had their papers to signify that they were free. So the entire building, the center of democracy in the United States, was created by African American slaves.
AMY GOODMAN: And the documents that prove this?
JESSE HOLLAND: The reason why we know this for a fact is because the federal government rented slaves from plantations in Virginia, Maryland and in the District of Columbia. The government had to write receipts for the use of these slaves, and those receipts still exist at the National Archives in the Library of Congress. Through meticulous searching through those archives, we’ve been able to determine, almost precisely, that just about 400 of the workers who created the US Capitol were slaves.
AMY GOODMAN: The year?
JESSE HOLLAND: This was in the—the construction of the Capitol began in the early 1700s, and it finished directly before the Civil War. Actually, one of the better stories comes at that time directly before the Civil War. To complete the Capitol, they wanted to put a statue on top of the Capitol Dome, and an American art student in Paris wins the competition and creates the Statue of Freedom, a statue that today sits on top of the Dome. He takes a picture of the statue, and he sends it back to the United States, and it wins the competition.
But the person in charge of the construction of the Capitol at that time was the secretary of war, Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, who would go on to be the president of the Confederacy. Well, when Jefferson Davis saw the picture of the Statue of Freedom, he threatened to cancel the entire project. The reason why is because Thomas Crawford, the art student who created the Statue of Freedom, had placed on top of the Statue of Freedom what was called a liberty cap. Well, Jefferson Davis was a student of Roman history, and he knew what a liberty cap signified. What a liberty cap tells the world is that that person wearing the liberty cap is a freed slave. So what Thomas Crawford wanted to put on top of the Capitol was a statue of a freed slave. But when Jefferson Davis sees this, he goes ballistic. He says he is not going to put a picture—a statue of a freed slave on top of the US Capitol. And he tells Thomas Crawford that “you either change the statue, or we’re going to cancel the entire project.”
Well, Crawford is an art student, and he needed the commission money. But the only thing he did was he took off the liberty cap and put on an American eagle helmet. So when most people look at that Statue of Freedom, when they see the Statue of Freedom behind Barack Obama on Inauguration Day, most people are going to think that that’s a statue of a Native American. No, it’s actually a statue of a freed slave with an American eagle helmet on top...more