Pelosi Remarks at Ceremony Recognizing Contributions of Enslaved African Americans in Construction of U.S. Capitol

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Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Republican Leader John Boehner, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, Congressman John Lewis, Senator Blanche Lincoln, and Members of Congress held an unveiling ceremony for plaques to recognize the contributions of enslaved African Americans in the construction of the United States Capitol this afternoon in the Rayburn Room of the Capitol. Below are the Speaker’s remarks:

“Hello again. Welcome to all of you to the Capitol for this very special occasion. Imagine having this program, this plaque unveiling ceremony in recognition of the contributions of enslaved African Americans to the construction of the United States Capitol. Because of John Lewis, Senator Blanche Lincoln, J.C. Watts. Thank you, J.C., for being here and so many of you. You have given us this privilege to unveil these plaques to correct this injustice. I am glad we are doing so in a very strong bipartisan way. My colleague from the House, Leader Boehner and our friend in the Senate, Leader McConnell and Chairman of the Republican National Committee, Mr. Steele, sitting right in front of Mr. Hoyer, here in a very bipartisan way.

“I want to acknowledge the presence of so many Members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the associate members of the caucus — Congresswoman Barbara Lee is here today. The Congressional Black Caucus and John Lewis have been called the conscience of the Congress. And today, the challenge to the Congress that this justice has presented is at least partially corrected by giving the recognition that we do. It has been an honor to work alongside Majority Whip Clyburn in this endeavor and Barbara Lee of the Black Caucus. I would also like to recognize two other leaders in the African American community who have leadership roles–Lorraine Miller, the Clerk of the House, and Terri Rouse. Terri is the CEO of the Capitol Visitor Center, which houses Emancipation Hall, named to acknowledge enslaved Americans who built the Capitol.

“Over the past decade, the Slave Labor Task Force worked to document the history of slave laborers who constructed the walls of the United States Capitol. We all know that by now, and we know of the valuable contribution of the Reid family. Out of a dark chapter in our past, an age of equality denied, rights refused, a dream not yet realized, these masons, carpenters, painters, and others gave us this house of liberty and this beacon of hope for our nation, and indeed, the world.

“History books up until now had not reported their story, nor described the pivotal role they played in erecting the Capitol. That the tale will be written forever into these walls, etched into this structure, and spoken from this marble chamber. Today, it is enshrined in these plaques, which state: ‘This original exterior wall was constructed between 1793 and 1800 of sandstone, quarried by enslaved African Americans, who were an important part of the labor force that built the United States Capitol.’

“For all to see and read and savor and treasure and value when they visit this Capitol of the United States. Never again will their contribution go unrecognized.

“These plaques will join the bust of Sojourner Truth and the portrait of Shirley Chisholm in the Capitol — this is the Capitol where Rosa Parks lay in state — one of the most recent tributes to the extraordinary contributions of African Americans to our nation. They are assembled to all who come here to show that no American is left out of America’s story.

“Today, we honor men and women who not only constructed a single building, but became critical threads in the fabric of our country’s heritage. And we will continue to honor the diversity of our nation in the months and years ahead.

“Once again, I always love to tell the story that when Lincoln made his second Inaugural Address, which is sometimes called Lincoln’s greatest speech: ‘With malice toward none, with charity toward all.’ That was the first time African Americans, as a class, ever attended a presidential inauguration as free people. It was a very, very changed situation. The great emancipator would make his Inaugural Address, say those beautiful words, and have people being freely attending.

“At that time, not in that speech, President Lincoln said: ‘We cannot escape history.’ And with these plaques, we embrace history. We celebrate it.

“And now I’d like my colleagues to join this unveiling of the plaques. Please come forward.”

Source: Office of the Speaker of the House

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