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History Exhibit Showcases African-Americans


February is National Black History Month in the United States - an annual celebration that promotes and highlights the positive accomplishments made by people of African descent. VOA Correspondent Chris Simkins reports on a traveling exhibit that uncovers the role African Americans played in helping build the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC.

The U.S. Capitol is one of the most recognizable man-made landmarks in the country. With its stately white dome, the building serves as an international symbol of the country's representative democracy. But until recently little was known about the people who actually built the massive structure. Now a traveling exhibit entitled "From Freedom's Shadow" reveals that most of the Capitol was built by black slaves from the late 1700s through 1863.

Felicia Bell, with the Capitol Historical Society, is the exhibit's curator. She says, at the time, large numbers of slaves were used to construct many government buildings throughout the United States. "The fact that they (slaves) were skilled and already actively hired out to build other significant structures even prior to the Capitol shows us that the enslaved people were instrumental in the early establishment of the United States and of these urban centers."

The exhibition chronicles the methods used to recruit slaves for building the Capitol. Old records show construction contractors used a practice known as "Hiring Out", which involved white slave owners getting paid for allowing their slaves to be used as temporary laborers. The slaves themselves were only paid if they worked nights, Sundays and holidays.

"The documents indicate these owners seeking payment for their laborers hired out. Sometimes it was one laborer, sometimes it was several. The typical rate of pay was $5 per month per enslaved person, which was a pretty good rate of pay for the time period."

The African-American slaves worked alongside white laborers cutting timber, hauling stone and other types of construction work. Ironically, even the famous six-meter high Statue of Freedom, which was placed atop the Capitol dome during the Civil War, was cast in bronze by a slave, Philip Reid.

Curator Bell says an eyewitness account of the work environment was recorded by a Polish traveler who visited the Capitol construction site. "He talked about how the white laborers were drinking alcohol most of the day and it was the enslaved laborers who were doing the work and how he was appalled when he found out that these enslaved men were not being paid, that their owners were being paid for hiring them out."

The traveling exhibition has been displayed at many schools across the country. At Howard University in Washington students, such as Nieon Crawford, are fascinated about the Capitol's history and the role blacks played in building the historic landmark. Crawford says, "It is finally great to see people bring this information forward so more people can learn about it. I definitely learned a great deal today by looking at the exhibit: who participated and how they participated. We never really knew what contributions were made in the past."

Ms. Bell says the Capitol's history should not be glossed over because of the painful memories of slavery. She says the exhibit is important because it helps people understand the significant role African-Americans had -- not just in building the Capitol - but in building the nation.

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