The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture is in the final stages of construction on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., next to the Washington Monument and near the National Museum of American History. It will be a transformative and long-overdue landmark in the center of the nation’s capital. As the museum’s director, Lonnie G. Bunch III, puts it, “This museum will tell the American story through the lens of African-American history and culture. This is America’s Story and this museum is for all Americans.”
One of the most striking pieces visitors to the new museum will see is a slave cabin from Edisto Island, South Carolina that was painstakingly dismantled and brought to Washington to be rebuilt at the museum’s center. It will join artifacts like a child’s slave shackles and Harriet Tubman’s shawl and hymn book in telling the chapter at the foundation of our national story. The slave cabin may have come from hundreds of miles away, but slavery itself was at the heart of our nation’s capital from its very beginning.
Traces of this other Washington are everywhere. As the new capital was rising from former woods and swampland, slaves labored on many of its buildings, including the White House and the Capitol. As the Architect of the Capitol’s office explains: “When construction of the U.S. Capitol Building began in 1793, Washington, D.C. was little more than a rural landscape with dirt roads and few accommodations beyond a small number of boarding houses. Skilled labor was hard to find or attract to the fledgling city. Enslaved laborers, who were rented from their owners, were involved in almost every stage of construction.” Records showing how much owners were paid for their slaves’ labor tell us a few of these slaves’ names: Tom, Peter, Ben, Harry and Daniel worked on the White House. Nace, Harry, and Gabe worked on the Capitol. One slave who received special notice was Philip Reid, who helped construct the Statue of Freedom that sits atop the Capitol dome. He was the only person able to solve the puzzle of how to dissect and reassemble the original model of the statue after the sculptor who knew the secret refused to help without being paid more money. Philip Reid’s master said Philip was “of mulatto color, short in stature, in good health, not prepossessing in appearance, but smart in mind, a good work man in a foundry, and has been employed in that capacity by the Government, at one dollar and twenty five cents per-day.”
Slave coffles were a familiar sight in Washington’s streets. Those lines of slaves chained together were horrifying to visitors from other countries and those traveling to the capital of the new country seemingly built on freedom. Slave markets and slave pens existed on a number of city sites including some not far from the spot on the Mall where the new museum will stand and the Tidal Basin now framed by beautiful cherry trees. Others were within yards of the White House. The movie 12 Years a Slave retold the story of Solomon Northup, a free Black man from New York who in 1841 was tricked into traveling to Washington with a promise of work as a musician. Instead he was drugged and kidnapped, imprisoned in a slave pen “within the very shadow of the Capitol,” and from there illegally sold into slavery in Louisiana. As a new Congressman from Illinois from 1847-1849, Abraham Lincoln described a slave pen he saw “in view from the windows of the capitol, a sort of Negro livery-stable, where droves of negroes were collected, temporarily kept, and finally taken to southern markets, precisely like droves of horses.”
Slaves likely helped quarry the distinctive red bricks in the Smithsonian Castle, a familiar landmark in the middle of all the Smithsonian museums. Quarrying was notoriously grueling work. The bricks came from a Maryland quarry owned by John Parke Custis Peter, a great-grandson of Martha Washington; many of the slaves Peter owned had ties to Mount Vernon, and scholars believe several of the adults who may have labored as slaves at the quarry were slaves at Mount Vernon as children.
Some of this history is commemorated in Washington today. Visitors to the U.S. Capitol can see a marker in the building’s Emancipation Hall honoring the slaves and other laborers who helped construct it. Beneath the inscription on a marble platform is a large chunk of sandstone from the Capitol’s original East Front Portico, with chisel marks still visible. In other places new steps are being taken to honor the past. For many years the Treasury Annex building stood on the site of the Freedman’s Bank, built in 1865 to provide an opportunity for wealth-building among newly freed slaves—an attempt to right one of the profound wrongs the Black community is still struggling to overcome. In January the U.S. Treasury Department held a ceremony officially renaming the Treasury Annex the Freedman’s Bank Building and recognizing the Freedman Bank’s legacy.
Even with important steps like these so much more of this other Washington remains hidden and forgotten. It’s time to uncover and remember these parts of our shared history—in Washington and in states and cities and small towns across the country. Each February should remind us all that just as the new museum will tell America’s story, Black history is American history. An honest accounting of the past is the best way to keep moving forward together. Only the truth can make us free.