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Eye on History: Slaves played a key role in building the U.S. Capitol

There is a lot about our nation’s capital that most people do not know. People come from everywhere to visit the National Mall. According to historians, the National Mall was the best place in town to sell slaves. Africans were herded across the Mall, with some headed to Virginia for sale and others toward the slave pens and markets surrounding the area.

One of the most well-known slave markets was the Yellow House. It was a three-story brick building painted yellow and owned by a man named William H. Williams. He made so much money that he was able to purchase two slave ships – the Tribune and the Uncas.

Solomon Northup described the conditions he experienced in the book, “Twelve Years a Slave.” Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, was kidnapped in Washington, D.C., in 1841 and sold into slavery. He was rescued in 1853 from a cotton plantation near Red River in Louisiana.

Northup wrote that the Yellow House was a dark, damp place with underground rooms and iron bars on the windows. The arms and legs of the slaves were chained.

The other slave pens in Washington included the St. Charles Hotel and Robey’s Tavern, where the slaveholders wined and dined while enslaved Africans suffered.

There was a brutal case of a female slave who was beaten without mercy. Her cries were heard throughout the slave pens. The book, “The Hidden History of Washington, D.C.,” written by Tingba Apidta, sheds light on this history that so many Americans have not been introduced to in our country.

President George Washington was a major slaveholder. His home in Virginia was a prime breeder of blacks for the domestic slave trade. Washington held a large number of children as slaves. He gave them such names as Lame Alice, Jupiter, Hercules, Paris-Boy, Sambo, Winny, House Sall, Caesar and Cupid. Washington sold and bought slaves. He even raffled off children.

In his struggle to control his slaves, Washington used violence. He left it up to his overseers to give out the punishment. The whip was used often. The more slaves a person owned led to owning more land and greater wealth.

The most devastating impact of enslavement was the destruction of family life, and Washington contributed to this with the division of black families at Mount Vernon. Half of the black men did not live with their families. The women and children lived in separate areas. On his property there was not a single intact family.

In the book, “An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves and the Creation of America,” by Henry Wiencek, the following statement appears: “From time to time Washington responded to individual pleas and rescinded orders that would have separated spouses, but as a general management practice he institutionalized an indifference to the stability of the slave families.”

Washington was not the only president to own slaves. The list includes Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, John Tyler, James Polk, Zachary Taylor, Andrew Johnson and Ulysses S. Grant.

Madison proposed the three-fifths compromise, which counted slaves as three-fifths of a human being for the purposes of taxation and legislative representation. Madison did not free his slaves in his will.

At the end of his life, Washington did leave provisions to free his slaves. His wife freed them within a year of his death. Although later in life Washington expressed regrets about owning slaves, the record he left behind as a slaveholder contributed to the destruction of many black lives.

Despite the enslavement history of Washington, D.C., African-Americans made tremendous contributions to the city. The Capitol building would not exist as we know it today without slave craftsmanship and labor. Records show that slaves made up a good portion of the labor pool that worked on the Capitol. They cleared trees, baked bricks used for the foundation walls, worked the Virginia quarries where the sandstone was cut and laid the stones that hold up the Capitol building.

Constance McLaughlin Green, in her book “Secret City: A History of Race Relations in the Nation’s Capital,” pointed out that slaves rebuilt many of the buildings in Washington that were destroyed by the British in 1814, including the White House.

Eva M. Doyle has been a columnist for the Criterion newspaper for 37 years.