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Rep. John Lewis Statement at Unveiling of Marker to Commemorate Slave Laborers on U.S. Capitol

February 29, 2012
Press Release

WASHINGTON—Today Rep. John Lewis participated in a ceremony at the U.S. Capitol where a marker was unveiled to honor the contributions of slave laborers to the U.S. Capitol.  The following is his statement:

  As the chairman of the Special Task Force to Study the History and Contributions of Slave Laborers in the Construction of the U.S. Capitol, I want to thank the leadership of the U. S. Senate and the House of Representatives--Senators Reid and McConnell, Speaker Boehner and Leader Pelosi--for ushering in this powerful moment in our history.  On behalf of all the members of the Slave Labor Task Force, both past and present, I want to thank each and every one of you for being here today.

       Of all the buildings that symbolize the dignity and the authority of the federal government, the U.S. Capitol is the finest to me.  It is so beautiful yet so restrained.  It is a testament to the culture of a great nation that shines like a beacon of liberty.  When building first began in 1793, I wonder if anyone noticed the contradiction.  Maybe no one even mentioned the clear discrepancy, that among those who toiled to build a monument to freedom were men and women who came to our shores in chains.

But they knew.  Those men and women sold in bondage, they knew, and they waited for just the right time to end their silence.  They waited through the Federalist Period and the Age of Reform.

Through the Gold Rush and the days of the wild, wild West.  Past the Emancipation Proclamation and Juneteeth Day.   Past Reconstruction and the Gilded Age.  They waited through two World Wars and a Great Depression.  Past the flight of the Tuskegee Airmen and even the protests of the Civil Rights Movement. 

The waited for a moment of relative peace at the silent turn of the 21st century for the evidence of their art to be brought to light.  And from the moment we discovered their contribution, we realized that we had been blind ourselves. Of course it made sense that slaves were involved, but it never even occurred to most of us.  To them our clouded vision did not matter, all they asked was that we simply make it right.  And once we heard their call, it was easy to take heed. 

Through the unveiling of this marker today, we finally permit countless and nameless souls to rest. 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”.  Thank you.