DIVERSITY WRIT LARGE: Telling the Full Story of a Capitol Built by Those Who Were Enslaved
January 28, 2009 posted by Delores M. Walters Last week we all watched as the First Family moved into a mansion built partially by enslaved people. The inauguration of the country’s first Black president has prompted historians to fill in the void in public knowledge about the contributions of African Americans to the making of American society more generally. I look forward to the eventual updating of information about other people of color and other marginalized groups as well. But in the telling of our stories, let’s be sure we tell those stories fully. Because I remain connected to a network of researchers and teachers focusing on the Underground Railroad, I just received a link to a post by journalist Fergus Bordewich over at Huffington Post (“Full Circle: Inaugurating Our Country's New President in The City Built by Slaves”) which I found to be relevant, timely and excellent – up to a point. What Fergus has not addressed is the gender dimension of resistance to enslavement. Among the questions I’d like to see Fergus and other journalists and historians making history public address are these: What was the role of enslaved women, and free Black and White women, during the construction of the Capitol? Were enslaved women involved in a support role such as cooking or cleaning for the builders, or were they more active in the building itself? Essentially, were the duties of enslaved women defined by a rural/urban split as in New York City, where for example, households were dependent on enslaved women’s labor whereas in rural settings there was much less distinction based on gender: both men and women were field laborers? Also, to what extent were children involved? While not relegating the celebration of Black and Women’s History to the next two months alone, it is nevertheless a good time to urge Fergus and others to explore the gendered aspects of slavery and resistance as we continue to tell—and make—history.