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D.C.’s Black History Gets Gentle Nudge

Washington, D.C., isn’t lacking when it comes to history. At least, that’s the impression most people get when they first arrive and behold its myriad statues, monuments and memorials.

But that’s not what Jesse Holland, author of “Black Men Built the Capitol,” thought to himself when he sized up the National Mall for the first time. After taking in the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial and the Washington Monument, Holland, an erudite black history scholar who hails from Mississippi, couldn’t help but wonder: “Shouldn’t there be some African-American history in those famous monuments and buildings?” After all, African-Americans have populated the nation’s capital since it was founded in 1790.

True, the Korean War Veterans Memorial and Vietnam Veterans Memorial prominently feature statues of African-American soldiers. And yes, Statuary Hall in the Capitol holds a bust of Martin Luther King Jr.

“But this is D.C. — we like big statues of real people in this city,” Holland said to murmurs of agreement in a full jurors’ lounge at the Moultrie Courthouse during a book talk last week.

If one excludes statues of African-Americans made using a composite of multiple models, he explained, and instead focus solely on life-size statues of real black men or women who actually lived at one point, they can be counted on one finger.

“That’s right,” Holland said. “There is only one place in Washington, D.C., where a statue of a real African-American man and real African-American woman stand on public land.”

That place is Lincoln Park on Capitol Hill. The man is Archer Alexander, a bona fide escaped slave shown in a statue called “Freedom’s Memorial” rising up at Lincoln’s feet as he holds the Emancipation Proclamation in one hand. The woman is Mary McLeod Bethune, a prominent African-American educator and activist whose larger-than-life likeness is displayed in another statue across the park titled “Let Her Works Praise Her.”

Holland’s book, for which he took an 18-month leave of absence from his job as a reporter for the Associated Press to write, shows that this is just the tip of the iceberg. Without it, the District’s rich — albeit subtle — African-American history would go unnoticed by many.

Although the book is meticulously researched (Holland culled most of its information from the Library of Congress and the National Archives, as well as meetings with the Senate historian and Capitol curator), it’s far from a hefty tome. Instead, Holland organized the book into a relatively succinct travel guide — it’s “as if I were putting you in the back of my SUV, driving you around the District of Columbia, and explaining the African-American contributions to the city’s greatest buildings and monuments,” he writes.

Along the way, readers will learn that the National Mall was the best place in town to sell slaves because of its prime location along the Potomac River; that the Architect of the Capitol originally wanted to top the statue of Freedom with a liberty cap, which is the symbol of freed slaves in ancient Greece; and that the hallowed grounds of Arlington National Cemetery once held a self-sustaining town called Freedman’s Village for former slaves. By the end of the tour, it becomes undeniable: Black men really did build the Capitol.

One aspect of the book that has become especially salient today, roughly three years after Holland’s book was published, is the last chapter, “On the Verge of a True Black Renaissance.” As Holland’s book went to press, Congress was moving forward with legislation intended to guarantee that African-American history is better represented in the District of Columbia. Some of the approved projects are approaching fruition, while others are still in the distant future.

Perhaps the most notable project scheduled to break ground soon is the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial, which will be on a 4-acre plot on the Tidal Basin near the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial and Lincoln Memorial. The 30-foot statue of King is finally nearing completion in China after being approved by Congress in 1996. In its disassembled state, the statue comprises 159 blocks of granite — each of which weighs as much as 55 tons, according to a recent United Press International report. The statue is expected to be shipped to the United States via cargo vessel in the coming weeks. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar signed a construction permit for the National Mall on Oct. 29, and site preparation began in December.

Other projects have lagged behind schedule, however. The Rosa Parks statue in the Capitol, which was originally slated to be unveiled in late 2007 or early 2008, won’t be completed until next September if there are no further delays.

The United States National Slavery Museum, which will be the first comprehensive museum dedicated to understanding and studying the impact of slavery, still needs additional funding. Ditto for the Benjamin Banneker Memorial, a statue dedicated to the man former President Bill Clinton dubbed the nation’s “first African-American man of science.” And the bill that would approve the National Liberty Memorial — a site on the National Mall dedicated to honoring free persons and slaves who fought for independence, liberty and justice during the American Revolution — is still in committee despite its original 2009 opening date.

Holland said he doesn’t find it disheartening that some projects have moved forward while others have hit snags.

“You never know when these projects are going to be completed because it’s all about fundraising and public recognition,” he said in an interview. “Some of those projects got it — like the Martin Luther King National Memorial — and some of them didn’t get it. Hopefully somewhere down the road all of these projects will be open.”

Once they are, Washington, D.C., will have come a step closer toward patching a sizable hole in the nation’s otherwise well-recorded history.

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