‘Black Men Built the Capitol’ a guidebook to D.C., surrounding area
“Black Men Built the Capitol: Discovering African-American History in and Around Washington, D.C.,” by Jesse J. Holland. 192 pp. $14.95, paperback.
By Deirdre Parker Smith
“Black Men Built the Capitol” takes readers on a tour of Washington, D.C., to show them the contributions African Americans have made to history, particularly in the nation’s capital.
Unfortunately, little is actually known of the black men who built the capitol. Black men were slaves then and few of their names or actions made it into official accounts.
Holland, the first African American ever elected to the Congressional Standing Committee of Correspondents, has written for the Associated Press and New York Times, among other publications.
What he has compiled is a guidebook, with historical notes.
Inside, you can learn about African Americans featured in portraits around the House and Senate wings of Congress, including Sen. Blanche K. Bruce, the first African American to serve a full term in the U.S. Senate.
Holland talks about people we know ó Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Sojourner Truth, as well as many most of us do not know. Take, for example, James Hemings, who was almost the first African American White House chef.
He was Thomas Jefferson’s slave who trained with French chefs. He asked for and received his freedom from Jefferson, who then wanted to hire him as the official chef. But Hemings, brother to Jefferson’s mistress Sally Hemings, was too happy traveling around the country showing off his skills.
Archibald Alexander, the first African American to earn an engineering degree from the University of Iowa, was in a firm that won the contract to build the Tidal Basin Bridge and seawall in pre-World War II Washington.
Holland includes a particularly powerful story about singer Marian Anderson. She was a very popular singer in her time and had performed for royalty and U.S. presidents.
In 1939, she was refused the use of Constitution Hall in Washington because the Daughters of the American Revolution would not allow blacks to use the hall. When first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, a friend of Anderson’s, heard of this, she got permission for the singer to perform on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
More than 75,000 men and women of all races attended the performance and Roosevelt resigned her membership in the DAR. But it took four years for the group to issue an apology.
Holland then branches out to guide readers to other parts of Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia.
Mary McLeod Bethune, the famous educator, is the only African American woman depicted in a statue in the capital, in Lincoln Park.
Her home is a national historic site that houses the National Archives for Black Women’s History.
The real Uncle Tom’s cabin is in Bethesda, Md., the home of Josiah Henson, an escaped slave. His autobiography, “The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave,” is believed to be the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
A statue of Justice Thurgood Marshall stands in front of the Maryland Court of Appeals in Baltimore and the Baltimore/ Washington airport is named in his honor.
Billie Holiday also has a statue in Baltimore, where you can find the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum.
Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia has several sites of African American history. Among those buried there are Benjamin O. Davis of the Tuskegee Airmen, Medgar Evers, the civil rights leader slain in Mississippi in 1963, Justice Marshall, and heavyweight champion Joe Lewis.
At Mount Vernon, you can learn about George Washington’s slaves, and at Manassas National Battlefield Park, you will confront the bloody history of the Civil War.
“Black Men Built the Capitol” is a good companion for those touring D.C. and the surrounding area, revealing sites many may not know.
Holland also includes projected opening dates for more projects, like the National Liberty Memorial, scheduled to open in 2009 (as of the book’s publication date). The memorial will honor slaves, freedmen, freedwomen and others who fought for liberation of the colonies during the Revolutionary War.
Holland adds a selected bibliography at the end, but there were times in the book where a cited source would add authority to the episodes.
The book is an easy way to learn a little history of forgotten people and tidbits about the famous that you’d forgotten from that last history class.
Look for a wrap-up of the books and preview of the Summer Reading Challenge panel discussion on Oct. 12.