Tour of Echoes

Walking through the Capitol on Jan. 20, Obama will be reminded of two centuries of African-American trials and triumphs.



Harry S. Truman met his successor, Dwight Eisenhower, at the exit of the U.S. Capitol minutes before the president-elect strolled to the stage to take the oath of office. Truman whispered, “There are thousands of folks out here, millions listening on the radio, and yet you’ll never feel more alone and surrounded with quiet as when you walk out here and get the lay of the land.”

Barack Obama now makes the same walk, passing through the Virginia marble, baked brick and Maryland limestone innards of the Capitol, then taking in the National Mall’s panorama—due west of the Lincoln Memorial, north of the White House, south of the Anacostia waterfront.

But he need not feel alone. In our collective memory of the inaugural path, the iconic civil rights marches of the 1960s loom large. But generations of African Americans have also quietly toiled in obscurity, paving the way for this moment. As Obama proceeds through the halls, surveys the stone, views the earth laid out around the inaugural landscape, he can take comfort and strength in the echoes of a long-ignored, often forgotten history.

Before the inaugural ceremony, Obama enters the Capitol through the Crypt, the oldest section of the building. As author Jesse Holland described in Black Men Built the Capitol, slave owners hired out gangs of human property to clear timber, bake bricks, dig foundations and haul limestone.

The Capitol, this temple of freedom, was rising from a hill, in two unconnected wings: House and Senate. The temple was erected by slaves. These forgotten people dug the ditches that drained groundwater from “Capitol Hill” into a fetid swamp, which later became known as a sewer called Tiber Creek. Today, this grassy area is known as the National Mall. The slaves sang as they swung shovels and picks. The echoes of these songs will ring within the crypt’s masonry as the Obama entourage proceeds past the Old Senate Chamber.

This chamber was the site of debates and treaties which grew our nation from infant to toddler. It was also a room in which African Americans declined to act as barbarous as their masters—or indeed, supposed liberators. In August, 1814, a British invasion force swept aside an American army in Bladensburg, Md. and would have captured the president and much of the cabinet were it not for the heroism of black sailors and other freemen under the command of Commodore Joshua Barney.

But other black people—slaves seeking freedom promised by the invaders—joined the British to fight, and they led the redcoats into an empty city. British soldiers and marines held a mock session of Congress in the Old Senate chamber, urinated on the stone, graffitied the plaster. But when the order came to burn down the place—the black British recruits refused. They’d take no pleasure in destroying this temple of freedom, though freedom was denied to them inside its very walls.

Before ascending the marble serpentine steps to the main floor, Obama passes the area the Supreme Court first occupied in 1810, until the court moved to its present building on First Street N.W. in 1935. In the still air, there remains a whisper of John Quincy Adams’ voice as he argues for a man named Cinque, who killed for his freedom on a ship called Amistad; a shadow of a boney finger points to a copy of the Declaration of Independence on the wall—still posted there in 2009—and this whisper proclaims that Cinque is “Forever free, by that document we so cherish.”

Yet grimmer echoes follow the tour, as another 1842 voice declares that slave catcher Edward Prigg wins his case against the state of Pennsylvania, and thus a fugitive slave mother— and her children born in the free state to which she fled—must be returned to slavery.