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Emancipation Hall, a 20,000-square-foot hall inside the new Capitol Visitor Center, will honor the slaves who helped build the U.S. Capitol, White House and other national landmarks.It is the first time that the contribution of slave labor in constructing the nation's capital is being recognized and is Bayside activist Mandingo Tshaka's dream realized.Tshaka was watching former President Ronald Reagan's casket being carried into the Capitol Rotunda on television in June 2004 when he became angry."They can honor a man such as he and bring him into the Rotunda, but they have never recognized the people who built the facilities," he said.Tshaka contacted the office of U.S. Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-Bayside) to express his frustration. Ackerman, who spent years teaching high school social studies, was surprised because he never had learned about slaves building the capital."It was a part of American history that wasn't important," Ackerman said. "Slaves weren't seen as people and so it went."Ackerman began his own research. He interviewed the Capitol historian, visited the Library of Congress and spoke with Capitol tour guides. He said he interviewed "all the people who would know anything on anything and [found] nothing."Ackerman brought the issue to the U.S. House of Representatives and on May 27, 2005, a law was passed that established a special task force to study the history of slave laborers in constructing the U.S. Capitol. The task force included elected officials from all areas of the country, including U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), former U.S. Sen. Richard Santorum (R-Pa.) and Langston University Historian Currie Ballard. Ackerman was not part of the group.The group found Tshaka's claims were correct. From the early 1790s until 1800, the U.S. government rented hundreds of slave laborers from local owners to assist in the building of the U.S. Capitol.The report explains how, among other things, slave labor was responsible for quarrying the stone for the Capitol and includes a list of money paid to local owners who rented their slaves.Tshaka obtained a copy of the group's report a couple weeks ago."I was reading the report and all of the sudden I couldn't see," he said. "It was because of tears."When he learned about the Emancipation Hall, which is expected to be open to the public next fall, he said it sent chills down his spine. He could not believe this was the outcome of his simple phone call a few years ago.Tshaka said he would like to attend the opening ceremony of the Hall. He would also like to see a monument of a slave man and woman be placed in the Capitol Rotunda."I want it in the midst of the slave owners," he said, referring to former Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, both known to have owned slaves.
©2008 Community Newspaper Group
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