Plaques Honoring Slaves Placed In Congress

Two small plaques were placed in the halls of Congress this week, recognizing the labor of African-American slaves in building the United States Capitol It was a singular moment of unity this week, between black and white, Democrat and Republican.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.


As the pundits' fierce pronouncements and prognostications went on as usual, so too did the usual haggling and harangues on Capitol Hill. But a quiet moment was almost missed. Two small plaques were placed in the halls of Congress, recognizing the labor of African-American slaves in building the United States Capitol. It was a singular moment of unity this week between black and white, Democrat and Republican, and one that wasn't missed by our reporter, NPR's Andrea Seabrook.

ANDREA SEABROOK: Just outside the House chamber and across a white marble hall, there's a ceremonial room full of crystal and gilt. On this day, it's packed with people and press as the Reverend Daniel Coughlin, the House chaplain, opens the ceremony.

Reverend DANIEL COUGHLIN (House Chaplain): Beneath the whistling of saws and the melodic beat of hammer and chisel, human hearts were heard humming gospel spirituals as they worked on this capitol.

SEABROOK: Coughlin speaks of classical beauty - the Capitol building's chiseled detail, it's vaulted ceilings of heavy stone masonry.

If you take the official Capitol tour, you'll learn many things about it, but not this: Many of the laborers who built this shrine to freedom were themselves slaves.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California): Out of a dark chapter in our past, an age of equality denied, rights refused, a dream not yet realized, these masons, carpenters, painters and others gave us this house of liberty and this beacon of hope for our nation and indeed the world.

SEABROOK: Pelosi was joined by her Republican counterpart in the House and the two top leaders of the Senate. But the man who pushed for more than a decade to get official recognition for the slave laborers is Georgia Democrat John Lewis.

Representative JOHN LEWIS (Democrat, Georgia): Imagine constructing this nation's Capitol building with your own two hands. Imagine in Washington's oppressive summer heat and humidity, to chisel and pull massive stones out of a snake and mosquito-infested quarry. Just imagine. The United States government, our government, paying your (unintelligible) - your owner - not you but your owner five dollars a month for your labor.

SEABROOK: The two plaques will be placed on stone walls - one in the House, one in the Senate. Both read: This original exterior wall was constructed between 1793 and 1800 of sandstone quarried by enslaved African-Americans who were an important part of the labor force that built the United States Capitol.

Rep. LEWIS: With these plaques we recognize the blood, sweat and toll of the enslaved African-Americans that helped construct this embodiment of our democracy.

SEABROOK: It was a singular moment of unity this week - inspiring and bittersweet.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, the Capitol.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: