Recognition of slaves' efforts in building the US Capitol

Last year, around the time when President Ronald Reagan's body was being ceremoniously transported to lie in state in the Rotunda of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., Bayside activist Mandingo Osceola Tshaka was a patient in a Queens hospital.

"Watching the event on television," he recalled recently, "I was fascinated by the military choreography, which was fabulous; the pomp and circumstance. The area where this was going on is absolutely beautiful."

The scene brought to mind a little-known fact Tshaka learned from reading "The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks," a book by author and civil rights activist Randall Robinson, a resident of the nation's capital.

In the introduction to his book, Robinson - founder of TransAfrica, a lobbying group set up to influence U.S. policies toward Africa and the Caribbean - notes that slave labor built the Capitol.

Robinson writes that the U.S. government requested 100 slaves "to erect the building that would house the art that symbolized American democracy." Construction would run from 1793 to 1802.

Efforts to recruit paid workers were unsuccessful, so owners of enslaved Africans were paid $5 a month per slave to rent them out for the construction, according to Randall, but the story wasn't being told.

Tshaka felt something should be done about that.

"I've been at the Capitol. It didn't have nothing there about me [black people]," he said.

From his hospital bed, Tshaka called the office of Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-Bayside). He also sent the congressman a copy of "The Debt" and asked him to bring the issue to the floor of Congress. At the beginning of June, Tshaka was informed that African-Americans' contribution to the building of the Capitol is to be recognized.

In a joint statement issued near the end of May, Senate and House leaders announced that a 12-member Special Task Force was established to study the history and contributions of slave laborers in the construction of the Capitol, and to make recommendations for their "appropriate recognition." The task force includes members of Congress and African-American historians.

"It is our hope that the work of the task force will shed light on this part of our history, the building of our nation's greatest symbol of democracy," the leaders stated. "The time to recognize this work is long overdue."

An effort was made back in 2000 to honor the enslaved workers when Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) introduced a successful bill that authorized the task force, but nothing was done. At Tshaka's prompting, Ackerman brought up the matter with congressional leaders and the task force was established.

Announcing this in a June 2 release, Lincoln said that from 1792 to 1800, 400 enslaved Africans helped build the Capitol, which houses the meeting chambers of the Senate and the House of Representatives, offices of congressional leaders, a museum of American art and history. It's also the site for ceremonies of national importance, such as presidential inaugurations and the lying in state of prominent persons.

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