February 25, 2009

Senators Schumer and Bennett Honor Contributions by Enslaved African Americans in Building of the U.S. Capitol

Senate Authorizes Plaque Commemorating Role of Enslaved African Americans in Construction of U.S. Capitol

Washington, DC (Feb. 25, 2009) - U.S. Senators Charles E. Schumer and Bob Bennett, as well as other Members of the Senate, today passed S. Res. 53, a resolution to authorize the installation of a plaque honoring the contributions of enslaved African Americans in constructing the U.S. Capitol. This portion of the Capitol was built by slaves between 1793 and 1800, but their contributions were overlooked by historians for years and are largely unknown to the general public. The plaque will be placed inside in the East Front Corridor on the third floor of the Senate wing of the Capitol building.

“We cannot ignore the impact of slavery on the history of our nation,” said Schumer. “By recognizing the role of enslaved African Americans in the construction of the U.S. Capitol, we are one step closer to healing the racial wounds that remain in our society. This plaque stands as a reminder of how far we have come since the days of slavery and how far we still need to go.”

Construction of the Capitol began in September 18, 1793 when George Washington laid the first cornerstone of the building. The Senate wing of the building was completed in 1800 and the House wing was completed in 1811. Since that time, the Capitol has undergone several reconstructions and modifications, but at no other time in the history of the Capitol’s construction is the use of slave labor so prominent.

Little is known about the lives of the slaves who constructed the Capitol. Between 1795 and 1801, more than 380 payments ranging from $60 to $70 were made to slave owners for the use of their slaves in the construction of the Capitol. Slaves performed a variety of jobs, including mining, stone and timber sawing, bricklaying, and carpentry. The stone used in constructing this portion of the Capitol was mined by slaves in the Aquia Creek sandstone quarry in Stafford Count, VA and the Montgomery County marble quarry in Maryland. Slaves employed with sawing duties often earned extra money, which they could keep for themselves, by working nights, Sundays, and holidays. Offering slaves extra wages that were not given to their owners was rare in the 1790s.

To date, only six African Americans have served in the United States Senate. In the 1870s, Hiram Revels and Blanche Bruce, both representing the state of Mississippi, became the first two African Americans to serve in the Senate. Nearly a century later, in 1967, Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, became America’s third African American senator. In 1993, Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois became the first and only African American woman to serve in the Senate. In 2005, Barack Obama became the nation’s fifth African American to serve in the US Senate, followed by Roland Burris.

Since the end of the Civil War, almost 120 African Americans have served in the US House of Representatives. In 1870, Joseph Rainy of South Carolina became the first African American to serve in the House of Representatives. In 1968, Shirley Chisholm was elected to represent New York’s 12th Congressional District and became the first African American woman to ever serve in Congress.