Built By Slaves: A Capitol History Lesson

Tomorrow, Barack Obama will be sworn in as the next president on the steps of the United States Capitol. But few know the historic building was built, in part, by enslaved Americans. And, much like the country it represents, it has a complicated relationship with race. Tell Me More visits the U.S. Capitol to learn more about its past.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, I share some of my thoughts with you on this historic Martin Luther King Day.

But first, we take another of our field trips. We've been popping into places around town where people are getting ready for the big day tomorrow, and nobody is working harder to get ready than the people at the U.S. Capitol, where Barack Obama and every president since James Madison has taken the oath of office.

Now, most people know that the Capitol is - more than any other single building - the symbol of our national identity. But what many people may not know is that it was constructed in part by slaves, was once segregated and didn't contain a single statue of an African-American until 23 years ago. I wanted to know more about that history, so a few days ago, I took a trip to the Capitol and was greeted by Fred Beuttler. He is the deputy historian of the House.

Mr. FRED BEUTTLER (Deputy Historian, House of Representatives): Welcome to the Capitol.

MARTIN: We are standing, I guess, on the plaza in front of the...

Mr. BEUTTLER: This is the east front of the Capitol.

MARTIN: East front of the Capitol.

Mr. BEUTTLER: The east front of the Capitol. Mr. Obama will be inaugurated on the west front of the Capitol. But before 1981, all the inaugurations were here on the east front.

MARTIN: So what role exactly did slaves have - or enslaved Americans, as we now like to say - have in the building of the Capitol?

Mr. BEUTTLER: It probably started even before the building. When the site was chosen up here, it was called Jenkins Hill. And it was heavily forested, and so you had slaves cutting down trees, landscaping the area, and digging some of the trenches for the foundation. So even before the building had started, you had enslaved peoples working on the Capitol area. In 1793, George Washington lays the cornerstone, and construction starts almost immediately thereafter.

MARTIN: I think probably one of the more identifiable features of the Capitol, in addition to the dome, of course, that many people will think of when they think of the Capitol is the Statue of Freedom. If you would just tell us what it looks like for a minute for people who don't remember what it looks like.

Mr. BEUTTLER: OK. Well, it's about 19 feet tall. It's a dark bronze with a dark patina on it of a woman with a headdress - kind of a Roman headdress with an eagle on the top, with a shield and a sword and a cloak sort of thrown over her left shoulder.

MARTIN: And does Freedom have a connection to the story of African-Americans?

Mr. BEUTTLER: That's one of the most exciting stories in the history of the Capitol because what you have is an American sculptor, Thomas Crawford, who was there over in France was given the commission. And he made a plaster model and then shipped it over to the United States. Well, no one was able to take apart the plaster model in order to forge the bronze statue except for one man by the name of Philip Reid.

He was an enslaved African-American owned by Clark Mills of South Carolina. And that Statue of Freedom was actually raised up on December 2nd, 1863 into the top of the dome. And what's exciting is that Philip Reid was actually, by that point, a free man because in April of 1862 - April 16th is when the D.C. Emancipation Bill passed. And so Philip Reid, the slave who actually forges the Statue of Freedom, by the time it becomes to the top of this Capitol dome, he's a free man.

MARTIN: That is a great story. And I - you do wonder, is there any written record of his feelings about all this? I mean, a man working on the Statue of Freedom who was himself not free, at least at the time he began, and then became free. Do we have any sense of how he felt about that?

Mr. BEUTTLER: Yeah, we don't have any firsthand accounts of what his feelings were and the irony of an enslaved man forging the Statue of Freedom.

MARTIN: It's a little chilly out here. Now, I know you're from Chicago, so you think this is perfectly fine, but I'd love it if we could go inside now and see if there are any other landmarks and important places to think about which have a connection to African-American history. Can we go?

Mr. BEUTTLER: Sure.

MARTIN: All right, let's go.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

MARTIN: OK. Now, we're inside the Capitol, on the floor just below the rotunda at the old east front. Tell us about the old east front.

Mr. BEUTTLER: This is one of the original points of the Capitol. What you have here is exposed the original sandstone. One the west front, you do have the original sandstone but it's painted. Here, you can actually - now every visitor going into the Capitol will actually walk by stone that was actually cut by slave labor. And we know actually the names of some of the individuals prior to 1800 that built this. After that, it - they were just contracted with their masters. But the wage was about $5 per month. That went to the master, not to the slave. But some of the individuals were able to earn extra money on the weekends.

MARTIN: So we are looking at these cut stones, and I can look at these stones and know that enslaved Americans cut these with their own hands. And we know some of their names.

Mr. BEUTTLER: Mm hmm.

MARTIN: That's amazing...

Mr. BEUTTLER: And sandstone was reasonably easy to cut. I mean, it's arduous but it's really reasonably easy. But when you get into places like Statuary Hall and the old Senate Chamber, there you've got marble columns, and the enormous amount of work it took to cut sandstone is more like triple the cutting of the marble but also the polishing of that stone. You can imagine the amount of effort and labor that went in day after day, all seasons of the year because slaves lived around the Capitol here in small shacks as they were rented out to build this - what is called a Temple of Freedom.

MARTIN: And now we're going to head to the rotunda? OK. Let's go. Thank you.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

MARTIN: So now we're in the Capitol rotunda, which is the place in the building that's underneath the big dome that everybody sees, and it's a very popular destination. In fact, what you can hear going on behind us is there not one but two tours going on as we speak. Fred, why don't you just describe it for people who've never been here?

Mr. BEUTTLER: This is the central ceremonial space in the Capitol. It's a shared space with House and Senate and a lot of the - the kind of national honor ceremonies are here. This is where Rosa Parks, for example, about three years ago, lie in honor after her death in 2005.

MARTIN: I mean, this place is just filled with history. I mean, we passed statues of many many notables, and I see in the corner a statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. But it's my understanding that there was not a statue of any African-Americans here for quite sometime.

Mr. BEUTTLER: Well, this is the only statue of an African-American in the entirety of the Capitol. Congress, during the Civil War, decided to create what they called National Statuary Hall and invite each state to submit two statues. But no state had chosen, up to this point, an African-American. And Congress realized that the problem with that - and I want to tell you another story about how this rotunda works, too. But in 1982, Congress commissioned, actually, a contest for a statue to honor Martin Luther King. And finally, on his birthday in 1986, the statue was unveiled just about the same time, couple of days before the first Martin Luther King holiday.

MARTIN: Oh, wow. Great.

Mr. BEUTTLER: So that was done by an act of Congress.

MARTIN: OK. Tell me a little bit about some of the paintings along the wall.

Mr. BEUTTLER: One of the things in the rotunda, you have eight large paintings memorializing important events in - from the Declaration of Independence all the way up to Washington. But there's no painting of an African-American at all in the rotunda. If you look above, there is - the top portion of the dome is the apotheosis of Washington - Washington is sort of being raised up in the heaven, and that was done by Constantino Brumidi. After that, he starts painting the American history frieze that goes all the way around the inside of the Capitol, and it starts in the center, and the first image is of Columbus discovering America. Then it goes all the way around with significant events in American history, like, for example, William Penn's treaty with the Indians. But then, we really...

MARTIN: But there's no acknowledgment of slavery.

Mr. BEUTTLER: But there's no acknowledgment...

MARTIN: There's no acknowledgment of the institution of slavery...

Mr. BEUTTLER: At all.

MARTIN: Remarkable, given the fact that even as this building was being raised, enslaved people were doing it. So they were disappeared from the very project that they laid their hands on.

Mr. BEUTTLER: And so you have the whole rotunda built by slaves from the floor all the way to the top. But there's no recognition of African-Americans at all. And the story with Brumidi, as he does his history frieze, he actually ran out of images, and he stopped before he was finished. He left about 31 feet that's open. And so what do you put there? This becomes a very important political question because the next major event is going to be how do you portray the Civil War?

And Congress went back and forth, and there was even an image up there temporarily of Lincoln presenting the Emancipation Proclamation to his Cabinet. But if you look up there, it's not there anymore. Instead, what you see is an image done in the 1950s which portrays the Civil war as the shaking of hands between a northern soldier and a southern soldier.

MARTIN: Where is it?

Mr. BEUTTLER: It's right up - actually, towards the southwest.

MARTIN: There's nobody of color. There's no black people in it. Those are all white people.

Mr. BEUTTLER: Right. Those are all white people. And so, the most important event in American history - emancipation, freedom - is not portrayed on the history paintings in the entirety of the Capitol or entirety of the Capitol rotunda. And Congress realized that, and that's why they commissioned the statue for Martin Luther King...

MARTIN: Wow...

Mr. BEUTTLER: But there are other things that they have done in order to memorialize it. And that actually became a political controversy a couple of years ago in the 110th Congress. And two congressmen - one a northerner, the other a southerner, one an African-American, one white, one a Republican, one Democrat - actually pointed to the fact that there was no images other than the statue of Martin Luther King in the Capitol rotunda. And they said, we have to have some way to memorialize this. And so they were the ones to actually have a bill to sponsor to change the name of the main space in the visitor center to be Emancipation Hall.

MARTIN: On Tuesday - on January 28th, of course, as always, Barack Obama will be sworn in. He will be, of course, our first African-American president. As an historian, of course, you spend a lot of time thinking about events in the past. But what it's like for you to be here as you see history being made right now?

Mr. BEUTTLER: It's just an incredible opportunity and an incredible honor to be here and to watch history take place because we came up the east front, and I remember the east front of the Capitol. I'm from Illinois. That's Lincoln's spot, and the first inauguration of Lincoln was there with the Bible that Mr. Obama is going to be holding in the second inauguration. That great inaugural address that Lincoln gave was on the east front, and now we'll get to see it on the west front with the first African-American president.

And to be there to watch that is one of the most important events in American history. So finally, to link between, again, Mr. Obama from Illinois and Lincoln from Illinois, to have that connection, and to me coming - as a historian from Illinois is an incredible honor, incredible opportunity, yeah.

MARTIN: Fred Beuttler is the deputy historian of the House. I thank you so much for taking the time.

Mr. BEUTTLER: Well, thank you.

MARTIN: And to see a photo slideshow of my trip to the Capitol, please visit our Web site at npr.org and click on Tell Me More.

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