WASHINGTON – In George Washington's day, slaves rented out by Maryland and Virginia farmers for $5 a month held many of the federal construction jobs in the new capital. Visitors 200 years ago wrote of the irony of slaves building the first temples of freedom, the Capitol and what was then called the President's House.
But that history had nearly died until last month, when leaders in the House and Senate, in a bipartisan moment, approved a task force to recognize the slaves' role.
"I'm proud that this country has finally stepped up to admit to the awful history that we have denied for so long, even in our textbooks," said Currie Ballard, a historian at Langston University in Langston, Okla., and a member of the new panel.
It is unclear what the panel will recommend or when, but historical research is under way.
It's a story both infamous and remarkable, in which slaves worked not only as laborers but also as operators and managers of the quarry and lumber mill that provided the main construction materials. In the early 1860s, one slave, Philip Reid, ran the foundry and managed the slaves who cast the 19-foot, 7-ton bronze monument atop the Capitol's dome, which celebrates America's freedom.
Benjamin Banneker, a free black man from Baltimore County, Md., did much of the government's surveying in 1791 and 1792 around the 18 swampy farms that make up what is now downtown Washington.
Author and historian Ed Hotaling said slave labor was not what President Washington had in mind when planning for the capital's construction in 1791.
The government and its contractors initially sought white craftsmen and laborers from Baltimore, Norfolk, Va., and elsewhere, Hotaling discovered. The prevalence of slave labor in the capital area suppressed prevailing wages, however, and made recruiting difficult. About half the slaves in the United States lived in Virginia and Maryland at that time, and farmers often rented them out in the off-season.
Thomas Jefferson, whom Washington named a commissioner in the city's construction, favored slave labor because it was cheaper, Hotaling said. Jefferson's three-member commission authorized renting up to 100 slaves a year to work on the capital's first two big construction projects.
The slaves lived in huts on the Capitol and White House grounds and, said Walter Hill, the National Archives' specialist in African American history, were fed pork, beef and corn bread. A dispensary run by a nurse named Chloe LeClair saw to their health, said Hill, who has studied the archives' seven bins of expense records from the Capitol's construction.
Typical of many of the records is a handwritten 1795 receipt that reads: "For the hire of Negro Peter, from 1st of July to 1st of October... Received... fifteen Dollars."
By 1798, "90 slaves made up most of the work force building the Capitol," Constance Green wrote in Washington: A History of the Capital. In addition, the projects employed an unknown number of free blacks: There were 783 in the city by 1800, according to the census.
The total number of slaves who worked on the Capitol and the White House is unknown. Hill's records include about 400 payments to slave masters from 1795 to 1801, but the figures are lump sums that may include multiple workers.
The records confirm that slaves did much of the brickmaking, hauling, foundation-digging, masonry, nail-making and carpentry. Slaves rough-cut the sandstone and managed the quarry at Aquia Creek, Va., 40 miles south of Washington, from which the stone was shipped up the Potomac River on shallow-draft boats. Slaves also felled the oak used in the government construction projects and cut it at a slave-managed mill on the edge of White Oak Swamp near Richmond, Va.
"It was not unusual for slaves to run businesses," Hill said. "Slaves drove slaves on plantations. Slaves ran plantations. Why not businesses?"
The task-force formation is not the first time Congress has addressed slavery. Lawmakers have already directed the National Park Service to "appropriately commemorate" the slaves owned by George Washington who lived and worked at the president's mansion at Sixth and Market Streets in Philadelphia.
The Park Service has designed a memorial, and the city has agreed to spend $1.5 million on the project, but Congress has not appropriated money for it. It is expected to cost about $4.5 million.
In addition to historian Ballard, task-force members are Sens. Rick Santorum (R., Pa.) and Blanche Lincoln (D., Ark.); Rep. John Lewis (D., Ga.); former Rep. J.C. Watts (R., Okla.); Bettye Gardner, a historian at 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.