WASHINGTON—In George Washington's day, slaves rented out by Maryland and Virginia farmers for $5 a month held many of the federal construction jobs in the new capital. Visitors 200 years ago wrote of the irony of slaves building the first temples of freedom, the Capitol and what was then called "President's House."
But that history had nearly died until last month, when leaders in the House of Representatives and Senate, in a bipartisan moment, approved a task force to recognize the slaves' role.
"I'm proud that this country has finally stepped up to admit to the awful history that we have denied for so long, even in our textbooks," Currie Ballard, a historian of the African-American past at Langston University in Tulsa, Okla., and a member of the new panel, said in an interview this week. It's unclear what the panel will recommend or when, but historical research is under way.
It's a story both infamous and remarkable, in which slaves worked not only as laborers but also as operators and managers of the quarry and lumber mill that provided the main construction materials. A slave, Philip Reid, ran the foundry and managed the slaves who cast the 18-foot, 10-ton bronze monument atop the Capitol's dome, which celebrates America's freedom.
A free black man from Baltimore County, Md., Benjamin Banneker, did much of the government's surveying in 1791-1792 around the 18 swampy farms that make up what's now downtown Washington. None of the farms "has any floor except the earth," Banneker's boss, Maj. Andrew Ellicott, noted at the time, and their inhabitants suffered "the flux" in winter and "ague" in spring and summer.
According to author and historian Ed Hotaling, slave labor wasn't what President Washington had in mind when planning for the capital's construction got under way in 1791.
The government and its contractors initially sought white craftsmen and laborers from Baltimore, Norfolk, Va., and elsewhere, Hotaling discovered. The prevalence of slave labor in the capital area suppressed prevailing wages, however, and made recruiting difficult. Roughly half the slaves in the United States lived in Virginia and Maryland at that time, and farmers often rented them out in the off-season.
Thomas Jefferson, whom Washington named a commissioner in the city's construction, favored slave labor because it was cheaper, according to Hotaling. In any event, Jefferson's three-member commission authorized hiring up to 100 slaves a year to work on the capital's first two big construction projects.
The slaves lived in huts on the Capitol and White House grounds and, according to Walter Hill, the National Archives' specialist in African-American history, were fed pork, beef and corn bread. A dispensary run by a nurse named Chloe LeClair saw to their health, according to Hill, who's studied the archives' seven bins of expense records from the Capitol's construction.
Typical of many of the records is a handwritten 1795 receipt that reads: "For the hire of Negro Peter, from 1st of July to 1st of October ... Received ... fifteen Dollars."
By 1798, "90 slaves made up most of the work force building the Capitol," Constance Green wrote in a book titled "Washington: A History of the Capital." In addition, the projects employed an unknown number of free blacks: There were 783 in the city by 1800, according to the census.
The total number of slaves who worked on the Capitol and the White House is unknown. Hill's records include about 400 payments to slave masters from 1795 to 1801, but the figures are lump sums that may include multiple workers. In addition, Hill said, they include deductions for the government's outlays for slaves' shoes, clothing and inoculations.
The records confirm that slaves did much of the brick-making, hauling, foundation-digging, masonry, nail-making and carpentry. Slaves rough-cut the sandstone and managed the quarry at Aquia Creek, Va., 40 miles south of Washington, from which the stone was shipped up the Potomac River on shallow-draft boats. Slaves also felled the oak used in the government construction projects and cut it at a slave-managed mill on the edge of White Oak Swamp near Richmond, Va.
"It was not unusual for slaves to run businesses," Hill said. "Slaves drove slaves on plantations. Slaves ran plantations. Why not businesses? If a master had a highly skilled slave, he'd put him in charge of the business."
Hotaling, counting slaves working at the Virginia quarry, forest and sawmill, estimated that roughly 400 of the 650 workers on the capital's first two big projects were slaves.
Italian and Scottish stone-carvers—along with German, Irish and free black drovers, mechanics, laborers and craftsmen—worked alongside the slaves.
Free workers earned $70 a year, according to National Archive records, compared with the $60 paid to slave masters.
Federal officials stopped hiring slaves in 1802 but didn't require contractors to do so. Slaves working for contractors helped rebuild the Capitol and the White House after British troops burned both to shells in 1814.
Of that second generation of Capitol-building slaves, Reid, the foundry operator, was the best known. He's credited with slicing the massive monument into five cross-sections to permit their hoisting and with reconstructing the statue on the Capitol's dome in 1863.
From the early slaves' work on the Capitol, both the original foundation and exterior survived. The same is true of the White House.
Hotaling's findings on the Capitol's slave work force aired in 2000 on WRC-TV in Washington, where he was then a producer. The Emmy-winning report sparked Congress' interest in commemorating the slave labor that built its home.
In addition to historian Ballard, task force members are Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa.; Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark.; Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.; former Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla.; Bettye Gardner, a historian for the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History; Virginia Walden-Ford, the executive director of D.C. Parents for School Choice; and Curtis Sykes, the chairman of the Arkansas Black History Advisory Committee.
Former President Clinton mentioned the White House's slave laborers in 2000 in a speech on the occasion of the structure's 200th anniversary.
But for now, the only permanent memorial to their work is the buildings themselves.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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