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Leaders Fill Out Slave Labor Task Force

House and Senate leaders will announce today the full roster of the 12-member task force established to formally recognize the contribution of slave laborers in the construction of the Capitol.

“It is our hope that the work of the task force will shed light on this part of our history, the building of our nation’s greatest symbol of democracy,” Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said in a joint statement.

“The time to recognize this work is long overdue and we look forward to the recommendations of the task force,” the statement continued.

The Special Task Force to Study the History and Contributions of Slave Laborers in the Construction of the U.S. Capitol will be co-chaired by Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and former Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) and include Sens. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), as well as Langston University professor Currie Ballard; historian Bettye Gardner of the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History; Virginia Walden-Ford, executive director of D.C. Parents for School Choice; and Curtis Sykes, chairman of the Arkansas Black History Advisory Committee and the first black person to be admitted to Harding College in Arkansas.

In addition, Librarian of Congress James Billington, Architect of the Capitol Alan Hantman, Senate Historian Richard Baker and newly appointed House Historian Robert Remini will serve as ex-officio members.

“I’m delighted to be named a member of the panel and I look forward to serving,” said Lewis, who co-authored legislation with Watts in the 106th Congress establishing the task force.

“As soon as humanly possible, we will come up with some recommendation to the Congress that will be a fitting tribute to the slaves who helped build the Capitol,” Lewis added.

Lincoln, who introduced the companion bill in the Senate with then-Sen. Spence Abraham (R-Mich.), agreed that the time has come to recognize the Capitol’s forgotten builders.

“The U.S. Capitol is our nation’s greatest symbol of freedom. It’s time we honor the extraordinary contributions of African-Americans towards its construction,” Lincoln said. “I’m pleased to be working in a bipartisan, bicameral effort to make this memorial a reality and to see that due credit is given for the beautiful craftsmanship and hard work that Americans visiting their Capitol enjoy every day.”

Santorum echoed those sentiments: “Although the hardships and sacrifices that African-Americans made during this time can never be absolved, I am encouraged to know that this task force will examine the slave laborers’ contributions. I am hopeful that the task force’s report will result in well-deserved recognition of the brave African-Americans who contributed to the construction of the Capitol building.”

Anticipating a “glorious day” when America realizes the slaves’ contributions, Ballard said last week: “Thank God for bipartisanship on both sides of the aisle.”

Ballard said he had “no doubt” that with its membership now in place, the task force would get under way this summer, and that’s a time line Walden-Ford, who has been the task force’s sole member for more than a year, said she would like to stick to.

“If I have anything to say about it we’ll meet and start work as quickly as possible this summer. I’m ready, I’ve been ready,” she said.

Congress authorized the task force more than four years ago after a local historian uncovered evidence showing that slave laborers played a major role in the construction of the Capitol.

While researching a story in 2000 on the 200th anniversary of the opening of the Capitol, Ed Hotaling, then a reporter for Washington’s WRC-TV, discovered pay stubs that had been provided to slave owners for the building’s construction.

“I’m happy that it’s finally getting under way, but their work is cut out for them,” noted Hotaling, an author and broadcaster.

Hotaling explained that much of his own work on the Capitol’s slaves is “original research” based on primary documents such as the pay stubs, and is not widely available for reference in other publications.

“It’s a tremendous amount of original research the committee will have to do” to construct an accurate record, Hotaling said.

The historian added that he would be “delighted” to share his work with the panel.

While it remains to be seen what the committee will recommend to honor the slave laborers, who worked alongside free black laborers and white workers, Hotaling said he would like to see a “living memorial,” such as a scholarship or lecture series, in addition to any tangible memorials that could be created.

Lewis noted that he does not have any specific ideas for the memorial yet.

“I want it to be something fitting and appropriate that would capture of the spirit of the men and the time,” he said. “I think it’s important for that part of our history to be as visible as possible and I think we owe it to history that we find some way, a simple but powerful way, [to honor] these workers, these slaves.”

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