By By Greg Beckwith - 03/12/12 11:50 PM EDT
Of the many statues and paintings on display in the Capitol, the newest addition to this collection may be the most distinctive yet. Gathering in the Capitol Visitor Center (CVC) recently, House and Senate leaders unveiled a commemorative stone recognizing the significant role that slaves played in the construction of the U.S. Capitol Building.
Made of cream-colored sandstone, the rectangular marker stands on a pedestal in the corner of the CVC’s Emancipation Hall, just steps from the bust of African-American abolitionist Sojourner Truth. Displayed against a backdrop of brown, earthlike stone, the marker stands roughly two feet from the floor with a plaque on the wall behind it that reads, “This sandstone was originally part of the United States Capitol’s East Front. Constructed in 1824-1826, it was quarried by laborers, including enslaved African Americans, and commemorates their important role in building the Capitol.”
The most striking feature of the marker is not its five, polished sides, but its easily visible rough and unfinished rear-end. The stone is presented in reverse position to display the original chisel marks from its extraction from a quarry on Aquia Creek in Virginia during the 19th century. Showing in detail the discolored layers of rock, these marks convey the tremendous effort that went into constructing the Capitol. The stone was once a part of the Capitol’s East Front portico but was removed during the East Front Extension in the late 1950s, and placed in storage.
“Enslaved laborers cut, carved, hauled and transported stone from the quarry to what was then known as Jenkins Hill, and it was used to construct the nation’s new Capitol Building,” AoC spokeswoman Eva Malecki said.
At the unveiling, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), who co-sponsored the Senate resolution, said, “They labored in the hot sun and cold wind in the quarries of Virginia and Maryland to unearth the stone upon which rests our nation’s Capitol … a building that represented a freedom that was never to be theirs … It is one of the great, sad ironies of American history.”
With the sun’s rays streaming through skylights in Emancipation Hall, congressional leaders pulled a curtain from the marker, revealing the stone. As the curtain fell, the audience let out a soft “ahhh” followed by a round of applause as the members of the assembled crowd got their first glimpse of the newest addition to the Capitol’s art collection.
“I want to thank the leadership of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives for ushering in this powerful moment in our history,” Lewis said. “Through the unveiling of this marker today, we honor the work, the dedication, the artistry, the imagination and the contribution of men and women in chains who help us, even at this hour, to sanctify the U.S. Capitol as our temple of liberty.”