Until the lion tells his side of the story, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.
That African proverb came to mind as I watched 60 Minutes’ report on the 150th anniversary of the U.S. Capitol. Scott Pelley interviewed Lonnie Bunch about Philip Reid, a slave who helped cast the Statute of Freedom that’s perched atop the Capitol Dome.
Bunch, founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, told Pelley:
Philip Reid was an enslaved man who was owned by someone who owned a foundry here in Washington. And that when the statue, initially plaster, came back to the United States, there was a concern about how do you take it apart? Philip was really one of the people who knew how to do this, and he came up with the idea of how to separate the model, how to then cast the model. He led the people who were making the cast of the bronze statue.
While Pelley gave a passing nod to Reid, he glorified Thomas Ustick Walter, who designed the dome, and Montgomery C. Meigs, an Army officer who served for a while as the construction engineer.
Now here’s the rest of the story: The U.S. Capitol was built with slave labor, a fact memorialized on two commemorative markers in Emancipation Hall in the Capitol Visitor Center.
The plaques stem from a concurrent resolution introduced by Rep. John Lewis in 2009. The resolution directed “the Architect of the Capitol to place a marker in Emancipation Hall in the Capitol Visitor Center which acknowledges the role that slave labor played in the construction of the United States Capitol.”
Here’s the back story:
In May of 2005, House and Senate Leadership announced appointments to a Task Force to study the contributions of enslaved African Americans in building the U.S. Capitol. The Task Force was also charged with the task of developing recommendations to the Congress concerning appropriate recognition of these efforts. In support of this effort, in June 2005, the Architectural Historian of the Architect of the Capitol provided a report on the contributions of slave laborers to the construction of the Capitol. On November
7, 2007, during the 110th Congress, the Committee on House Administration held a hearing to receive the recommendations of the Slave Labor Task Force Working Group, chaired by Representative John Lewis of Georgia. The Task Force spent several years exploring the extensive role played by slaves in the construction of the Capitol.
Of course, Americans now living cannot rectify these sins of the past, nor can we even thank the slave laborers for their sacrifice. But we can acknowledge those sins and the sacrifices of the laborers. The Task Force’s report recommended a number of steps be taken to do what we can. Several of their recommendations, including the naming of Emancipation Hall in the new Capitol Visitor Center, have already been achieved.
Read more: Report 111-153 – Directing the Architect of the Capitol to Place a Marker in Emancipation Hall in the Capitol Visitor Center which acknowledges the Role that Slave Labor Played in the Construction of the United States Capitol, and for Other Purposes