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From Freedom's Shadow: African Americans & the United States Capitol

Student’s Guide to Documents

Documents are history’s evidence, proof that an event took place.  Documents are not prejudicial or biased.  They do not favor one side of an issue or another.  They are simply primary sources, originally generated at the time an event took place.  Secondary sources (such as books) are created by historians who have used documents to interpret and analyze an event in the past.

Today, we can access documents at libraries and archives.  The original documents in Record Group 217 at the National Archives are the “Accounts of the Commissioners of the City of Washington, 1794-1802.”  These records document the accounting transactions between the commissioners of the federal city and nearby owners of enslaved people at the beginning of the Capitol’s construction.  They indicate that the commissioners hired enslaved people such as carpenters, sawyers, blacksmiths, bricklayers, and brickmakers from owners to help construct the U. S. Capitol.  Hiring enslaved labor for a particular task was a common practice between large planters and yeoman farmers in the Chesapeake region and throughout the United States.  Free black men who were trained in the building trades also labored at the Capitol.

The usual rate of pay at the Capitol for enslaved labor was five dollars per month per enslaved person.  While free blacks were able to keep their pay, enslaved men were only given a portion of their pay at the discretion of the owner.  While the commissioners provided food and shelter for the laborers, owners of enslaved people were expected to provide sufficient clothing such as shoes.

Researchers Alexis Rice and Ka’mal McClarin of The University of the District of Columbia and Howard University, respectively, plowed through records at the National Archives to find these glimpses into the early days of the Capitol’s intriguing history.  The Humanities Council of Washington, D. C. provided a generous grant to fund the research process.  The U. S. Capitol Historical Society is delighted to share these findings.