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Slave Labor Task Force Still Stuck in Neutral

When an amateur historian announced in 2000 he had uncovered evidence showing that slave laborers played a major role in the construction of the Capitol, lawmakers moved quickly to call for formal recognition of those workers.

But in the more than four years that have since passed, the effort has stagnated completely.

“I do not understand why it is taking so long,” said Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who co-authored legislation in the 106th Congress establishing a task force to study the history and contribution of the slave laborers during the Capitol’s construction.

Although both chambers passed the legislation that session, to date, House and Senate leadership have yet to organize such a task force, apparently as a result of the chambers’ failure to agree on a structure or designees.

“It’s very sad there has been so little action,” Lewis said.

Subsequently, there has been no progress made on selecting an appropriate tribute, which the legislation called for to be displayed “in a prominent location” in the Capitol.

Exasperated over the delay, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said Thursday that she is working with fellow members of the Congressional Black Caucus to issue a letter to Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Senate President Pro Tem Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) seeking to spark some action on the task force.

“Those of us who pressed this have to take responsibility for its not having moved,” Norton said. “I don’t think the leadership with all that is on its plate has given much thought to it.”

A Hastert spokesman could not confirm whether a structure for the task force has been finalized, but noted that the office is working with the Senate “to move this issue forward.”

A spokeswoman for Stevens could not provide comment on the issue last week.

And yet, the task force’s only designee, D.C. resident Virginia Walden-Ford, said she expects the group will be able to meet this spring.

The Senate appointed Walden-Ford to the task force in February 2004, and she said she has recently been in contact with an aide to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) about the project.

Walden-Ford, who serves as executive director of D.C. Parents for School Choice, confirmed that lawmakers are considering other potential task force members, but could not provide detailed information.

Regardless of the reasons behind the delay, Norton, who questioned the lack of activity on the project in a speech on the House floor last month, asserted it is vital for the task force to begin its mission immediately due to the numerous construction projects under way on the Congressional campus.

“I’m concerned about this delay because the time to comply with the resolution would be as the visitors center is being completed, and yet the task force has not been appointed,” Norton said, referring to the Capitol Visitor Center, the 588,000-square-foot subterranean center being built beneath the East Front. “By this time there should have been some kind of national competition to see what kind of recognition we’re talking about.”

One proposal raised during initial discussions of the project in 2000 called for placing a model of the Statue of Freedom, which sits atop the Capitol Dome, inside the visitor center. Such a tribute would seem to be appropriate because not only did slaves assist in casting the statue, but historians have noted that project was overseen by Philip Reid, himself a slave.

While supportive of such a memorial, Edward Hotaling, an author and broadcaster whose 2000 discovery of pay stubs provided to slave owners for the Capitol’s construction ignited the project, asserted a “living memorial” would also be appropriate.

“It would be good to have a living memorial, in addition to a work of art or an exhibition,” suggested Hotaling, who said he would like to see a lecture series or panel discussion, or even the creation of a scholarship program for students studying the construction trade or architecture.

The self-described amateur historian, who was working as a producer and writer at Washington’s WRC-TV and researching a story on the 200th anniversary of the opening of the Capitol when he discovered the documents, said he is disheartened that Congress has made so little progress on the tribute.

“I think it’s very disappointing,” said Hotaling. “The early African-Americans and enslaved African-Americans were just as much a part of America as anybody else, and made major contributions and should not be treated merely as economic units or victims.

“It is too bad that Congress doesn’t want to pay tribute to these people,” he added.

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