If ever anyone is in need of a grim yet unvarnished example of both America's choked bureaucracy and her unwillingness to approach, grapple with and truly understand her horrifically racist past, they need only be directed to what took place in the Mansfield Room in the U.S. Capitol building on June 16, 2010, at 3:00 p.m. We'll of course get to these incidents in a moment, but first some history.
Our story begins more than two centuries ago, in a still-settling Washington, D.C., back before it was the District of Columbia and long before anyone dared imagine a black man lording over the entire swampy hamlet. It was then, in 1790, that the U.S. Congress voted to build a new national capital near the Potomac River, at the intersection of Maryland and Virginia. At that time, it just made sense to the planners to enlist black slaves in the construction, what with the oppressive humidity in the summer months, the cruel winds in the winter and the at-hand plantations to both the north and south. So, following some bartering about price, it came to be that the U.S. government, for $5 a month, rented hundreds of slaves from various regional slavers in order to help build one of the nation's first architectural testaments to freedom.
Some slaves toiled for years working on the Capitol (and the White House), including women and children. And more than half a century after the initial construction began, still more slaves were brought in to expand what had already been created. They were masons, quarrymen, roofers, painters and carpenters, among other things. And many of them died having never drawn a breath outside of bondage.
After the last of America's slaves had died, the work some of them did in Washington was soon forgotten by elected officials who were content knowing only that the Capitol was there, beautiful and theirs. How it had come to be wasn't even an afterthought. For more than 200 years it went on like that, with lawmakers wearing blinders, ignorant to the tragic origins of the beauty that surrounded them. It wasn't until someone came across some old slave labor receipts in 1999 that anything changed.
Within a year, a bicameral, bipartisan organization called the Slave Labor Task Force was convened. Chaired by Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and vice-chaired by Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), the group's mission was to decide how best to honor all the men, women and children who'd been so cruelly forced to devote decades of their lives to a thankless nation. How was the best way to show appreciation for people who had for so long been neglected in death the way they were in life?
Ten years later, the Slave Labor Task Force agreed on two plaques, which brings us to the present.
It was for these plaques that a standing-room only crowd was called upon to celebrate on June 16. Before a claque of cameras and nearly 90 eager faces, most of them black, Lewis and Lincoln, accompanied by majority and minority leaders from the House and Senate, gave speeches elucidating the significance of the plaques.
In light of the heated partisanship currently dividing our national legislature, it was definitely a motley bunch. Their messages were, at times, just as strange. Rep. John Boehner, who has in the past vociferously denounced legislation that would help many black Americans, said the plaques mean simply "we will not forget." (He should have amended that to say "we will not forget—just as long as we're able to find some yellowed receipts 200 years after the fact.") For her part, Lincoln, perhaps unwisely, said that what must have "certainly" been on the minds of the slaves who built the Capitol was to "do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God." Yes, that must have been what the slaves, who had been ripped from their homes and families to do the bidding of oft-vicious strangers, were thinking.
It's a moving yarn, but not the second time around. Six minutes after Lincoln shared the tale of Philip Reid, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told the exact same story, saying, "It bears repeating"—though he likely was just unable to think of a new speech in time after he discovered his colleague from Arkansas had taken his.
When it was his turn, Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) boasted that the obviously intelligent Philip Reid and he had the same last name, seemingly unaware of the fact that that meant his ancestors could have owned the young man. Nevertheless, people laughed, including Republican National Committee leader Michael Steele and former Oklahoma Congressman J.C. Watts, who were seated next to each other toward the front of the room (ironically, left of the center aisle).
When the plaques were unveiled, flashbulbs washed the room with blinding whiteness. They are nice, bronze plaques, and they read: "This original exterior wall was constructed between 1793 and 1800 of sandstone quarried by laborers, including enslaved African Americans who were an important part of the workforce that built the United States Capitol."
To be fair, in 10 years, the Slave Labor Task Force hasn't just agreed to put up two plaques. It also pushed to dub the largest room in the Capitol Visitor Center, which opened in 2008, "Emancipation Hall." It's there where the plaques will be displayed, and it's through there that I had to exit the plaque revealing. Just outside the perimeter of the Capitol's armed guards, two middle-aged black men, seemingly homeless, were lying on the concrete. One had no shoes.
One couldn't help but wonder: If it took a decade just to get a pair of plaques, when will salvation come for those men?
Cord Jefferson is a staff writer at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.