The House on Tuesday acknowledged the use of African-American slaves in the construction of the U.S. Capitol, ordering officials to place a marker inside the new Capitol Visitor Center using some of the original stone quarried by those slaves for the historic building.
"This physical and permanent marker will pay tribute to the blood, sweat and tears of the African-American slaves who helped build this magnificent building and ensure that their story is told and never, never, ever forgotten," said Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga. The vote was 399-1, with Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, the lone dissenter. The Senate is considering a similar measure.
The House resolution orders the Architect of the Capitol to place in a prominent location in the visitor center's Emancipation Hall a marker acknowledging the role that slave labor played in constructing the Capitol.
"Far too often the detailed rise of our Capitol building fails to recognize the vital contributions by slave laborers," said Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss.
Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., said some of those original stones were removed from the Capitol during a renovation and have been held in storage. "We must acknowledge the sacrifices of those Americans who, without choice, worked to build a government that kept them in bondage," he said.
Lawmakers have been looking for ways to honor the slaves that were used in the construction of government buildings, including the Capitol and the White House.
Congress already has named the largest room in the visitor center Emancipation Hall in their honor.
Historians have discovered that slaves worked 12-hour days, six days a week on the construction of the Capitol. The federal government rented the slaves from local slave owners at a rate of $5 per person per month. The slaves were not paid.
In addition to working on the building, slaves worked in quarries where they extracted the stone for the Capitol. Other slaves provided carpentry skills, still others for sawing stone and timber.
Slave women and children were used to mold clay in kilns.
'In God We Trust'
The House also took up a resolution directing the Architect of the Capitol to engrave the Pledge of Allegiance and the national motto "In God We Trust" in conspicuous places in the three-story underground visitor center. The Senate passed the same resolution Monday night as part of a spending bill. A House vote was expected Wednesday.
The measure was promoted in the Senate by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who had threatened to delay the opening of the center in December because he said it glorified the role of government while ignoring America's religious foundations. "From the beginning many of us were concerned about what looked like a historical whitewash of our nation's faith heritage from the Capitol Visitor Center," he said Monday.
"It appears the visitor center, the way it is conducted and constructed, wishes to disown and deny our religious heritage," said Ted Poe, R-Texas. The measure was sponsored in the House by Rep. Dan Lungren, D-Calif.
The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the engraving costs would be less than $100,000.