The effort to rename the Capitol Visitor Center’s Great Hall in honor of the slaves who helped build the Capitol took a big step forward on Wednesday.
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved by voice vote the bill to rename the CVC’s main congregating space “Emancipation Hall,” sending the bill to the House floor for a vote.
Introduced in August by Reps. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) and Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), the bipartisan measure is expected to easily pass the House, where it has garnered 227 cosponsors.
Renaming the space is a fitting tribute to the slaves who joined free blacks and other workers in constructing the building that houses Congress, said Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.).
“Our Capitol is an icon,” Oberstar said. “It is one of the few landmarks recognized around the world, not just for the architecture, but for what it represents. … Those who were slaves gave their labor in the citadel of democracy.”
Wamp briefly attended Wednesday’s hearing, but left early to attend to other business, Oberstar noted.
As expected, ranking member John Mica (R-Fla.) voiced concerns about the measure. Although Mica supports finding a way to note slavery’s role in building the Capitol, the decision to rename the CVC’s main hall is concerning, he said.
In the history of the Capitol, no central meeting space has ever been renamed in honor of a single person or group of people, said Mica, who served for six years as the Speaker’s representative to the U.S. Capitol Preservation Commission.
“If I came here with a bill to rename the Rotunda ‘Emancipation Hall,’ it would be a similar action,” Mica said. “And I don’t think we’d want to do it.”
It also is inappropriate to rename the Great Hall because the space features marks that bear the thumbprint of former Sen. Jefferson Davis (D-Miss.), Mica said. For example, Davis — who became president of the Confederacy — helped with the design of the Statue of Freedom, whose plaster cast will be housed in the CVC’s Great Hall, Mica said.
“Jefferson Davis was no advocate of emancipation,” Mica noted.
As an alternative, Mica suggested renaming the CVC’s Exhibition Hall. The 16,500-square-foot space will tell the history of Congress through a slew of documents and exhibits, and also will feature the catafalque upon which President Abraham Lincoln — whose nickname is the Great Emancipator — laid in state.
Another suggestion: The name could be applied to the 450-seat Congressional Auditorium, which is fitted to be used as a Congressional chamber, if needed.
Mica also is concerned about the cost of the bill, he said.
“I was down there this morning, and we already have [signs] to designate the various rooms,” Mica said. “I’m told it could cost as much as $125,000.”
Oberstar dismissed those worries. He noted that one of the original reasons for renaming the Great Hall to begin with is that the Library of Congress, which is connected to the CVC via a tunnel, also houses a Great Hall.
“There would be some confusion,” Oberstar said.
Cost should not be a worry, either, because many of the signs already made for the CVC can just be used in the Library, Oberstar argued.
Oberstar added that while renaming the Congressional Auditorium is a “good thought,” the facility would not be open to the public, “while Emancipation Hall would be the first thing people see” if the Great Hall is renamed.
D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), who chairs the subcommittee that recommended the bill on Tuesday, also chimed in.
Finding a way to honor slavery’s role in the Capitol is tricky, Norton noted. It would be nearly impossible to come up with a statue, for example, that would not be considered controversial.
Plus, the overall goal isn’t simply to honor slaves, but rather to get people to think about the role slavery played, and continues to play, in the course of American history.
“We don’t want to try and compartmentalize this idea,” she said. “We want to be free and open with it.”
Exhibition Hall would not be the proper place for Emancipation Hall, Norton said, because it is a narrow, dimly lit area designed to tell the specific and unique story of Congress.
The Great Hall is different, Norton said. It is open and bright, featuring a great skylight looking at the Capitol Dome.
“By the very essence of the space, it says: ‘History has moved on,’” Norton said.
Another CVC-related hearing was canceled Wednesday.
The Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch now is expected to hold its monthly oversight hearing on the facility next week.