Nearly 150 years after being freed, the slave laborers who helped build the Capitol are closer than ever to getting official recognition for their work.
Members easily approved a bill Tuesday evening changing the name of the Capitol Visitor Center’s Great Hall to Emancipation Hall in honor of those slave workers. Introduced by Reps. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) and Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), the measure, which passed by a 398-6 margin, now heads to the Senate, where companion legislation has been introduced by Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.).
“It’s important what we name things,” Wamp said Tuesday. “Words matter. … Let us send a message to all that come to this temple of freedom that emancipation lives on.”
The recorded vote on the measure was requested by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C).
But support for the measure — which had 227 co-sponsors — was clear when Members debated it earlier Tuesday. Both Democrats and Republicans called renaming the 20,000-square-foot hall a fitting tribute to those who have no official acknowledgment for their efforts.
“These are nameless African-Americans,” Norton said. “Nothing in Emancipation Hall, and nothing we can do now, will make us understand who they are. But it’s the least we can do.”
The hall is considered the centerpiece of the $621 million CVC project. It will serve as the welcoming point for visitors to the Capitol, providing unique views of the Capitol Dome and a home for several figures from Statuary Hall.
Wamp, the ranking member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on the Legislative Branch, originally came up with the idea to rename the hall during the appropriations process earlier this year.
Once the CVC opens, a tunnel will connect the Library of Congress’ Great Hall — one of the most celebrated indoor spaces in Washington, D.C. — to the CVC’s Great Hall, Wamp noted.
That, of course, would lead to confusion. So the Tennessee Republican — who has given more than 1,700 Capitol tours during his 13 years in Congress — added language to the legislative branch appropriations bill to approve the change.
With the bill stalled in the Senate, Wamp and Jackson decided to move the process forward by introducing a separate measure.
“Emancipation brings us all together at a time in this country when we need things to bring us together,” Wamp said.
Detailed records on the role slave labor played in the construction of the Capitol were never made. But a Congressional task force found that slaves did indeed work on Capitol construction. Tasks included hauling stone, laying brick and sawing timber.
Slaves were paid about $60 a year, given to their white owners, the task force found.
“There is no building from the 19th century that was constructed in this town … that was not built, in part, through the labor of slaves,” Norton said.
But there are plenty of powerful, little-known stories about the role slavery played in the Capitol’s construction, Wamp noted.
One of them: The Capitol Dome was built during the Civil War. More than 4,000 Union soldiers were stationed at the Capitol during the war, standing alongside the slaves whose freedom the troops were fighting to secure.
“The story was never told, it was never archived,” Wamp said.
And there are other noteworthy stories.
Jackson noted that with the Thanksgiving holiday just days away, it is an appropriate time to honor the role slaves played in American history.
After all, President Abraham Lincoln introduced Thanksgiving during the Civil War as a way to bring Americans together, Jackson said. By renaming the hall, Jackson added, Congress can “write a new chapter in the unfolding story of human freedom.”