Thursday, July 9, 2009

Tracing the arc of history -- July 9, 2009 column


Two news stories this week traced the arc of African-American history.

At the top of the arc was the memorial service for Michael Jackson. The King of Pop shattered racial barriers and transcended race. He became -- if not “the greatest entertainer that ever lived,” as Motown founder Berry Gordy said -- one of the most influential and globally popular entertainers of our time.

About 31 million people in this country watched Tuesday’s memorial service from Los Angeles on TV, not bad for a weekday when most people supposedly were at work.

Making far less splash was news from Washington that the House had finally recognized the African-American slaves who built the Capitol more than 200 years ago. The House voted 399 to 1 Tuesday to direct the architect of the Capitol to install a marker in the Capitol Visitor Center acknowledging the labor of slaves.

A marker – even one made of sandstone quarried by slaves – doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a step toward reconciling the past and present. You could argue that we’re able to accept benighted aspects of our shared national history now because of triumphs by African Americans like Michael Jackson and Barack Obama. A companion bill is in the Senate.

The measures’ sponsors, Democratic Rep. John Lewis of Georgia and Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, head a task force charged with bringing to light the contributions of enslaved Americans during the Capitol’s construction. Lewis and Lincoln have ordered plaques for the House and Senate wings of the Capitol. The visitor center marker will help educate generations about the sacrifices that went into construction.

Records indicate that about 400 slaves worked on the Capitol during the 1790s, but it’s thought slaves worked decades longer. Masters rented their slaves for about $60 a year, and slaves, working sunup to sundown six days a week, performed some of the toughest jobs. They quarried stone, sawed logs and baked bricks.

Slave labor was not confined to the Capitol. A 2005 report from the Office of the Architect of the Capitol begins:

“No one will ever know how many slaves helped to build the United States Capitol -- or the White House; or the homes of founding fathers George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison; or Philadelphia’s Independence Hall.”

Richard Baker, the Senate historian, and Kenneth Kato of the House office of history and preservation, explain that indifference by early historians toward slaves, coupled with poor record-keeping and “the silence of voiceless classes” prevent us from knowing much about the enslaved men and women who ironically helped build the Temple of Freedom, as the Capitol was called in the 19th century.

Lewis, a veteran of the 1960s civil rights movement, said, “We look back today not to open old wounds, but to ensure that we tell the story, the whole story, the complete story of those slaves so their toils are never forgotten.”

And, while some would rather forget deplorable days of slavery, Lewis said, “Slavery is part of our nation’s history of which we are not proud. However, we should not run or hide from it.”

Congress has lagged the states in addressing slavery. Legislatures in Virginia, North Carolina and Alabama, among others, have apologized for slavery. The Senate passed a non-binding apology last month, but it included a clarification that the measure did not authorize or support reparations for descendants of slaves. The Congressional Black Caucus opposes the resolution because of the disclaimer.

At the memorial service, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, Democrat of Texas, talked about her proposed resolution to honor Jackson as an American legend, music icon and humanitarian “forever and forever and forever and forever and forever.” Her resolution cites numerous charitable gifts and trips Jackson made to fight hunger and ease medical crises, including HIV/AIDS.

This is a sensitive issue for some in Congress. Rep. Peter King, Republican of New York, posted a Web video blasting Michael Jackson as a lowlife and pervert. King has refused to back down despite harsh criticism from Jackson’s fans.

Jackson said in a documentary in 2003 that he let children sleep in his bed but denied there was anything sexual about it. He was acquitted of child molestation charges in 2005.

Some members of Congress may find it politically difficult in 2009 to honor Michael Jackson or to approve a slavery apology they find flawed. But almost everybody agrees it’s time, at long last, to honor the forgotten slaves who toiled to build our Temple of Freedom.

(Marsha Mercer is an independent columnist writing from Washington. Contact her at
© 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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