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.


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Thank you all for these wonderfully detailed comments. I really appreciate the attempts made by Fergus to address the role of gender in the building of the Capital. That mention should be included as the story of the research process is fascinating in itself and adds to Fergus’s original piece. While we are familiar with the lack of records to substantiate the recognition of enslaved women’s contributions in the early days of the Republic, Fergus points out the improbability that a woman serving the nutrition needs of Black enslaved men would have been White. In this instance, Fergus demonstrates why through logical analysis, we can draw a logical conclusion. I also accept Kate’s idea that historians should be free to explore the subjects that most interest and excite them. I would suggest though that in the case of enslaved laborers where gender divisions may or may not apply, it is best to indicate the context for one’s historical exploration. Especially is this recommendation a propos since it has been recognized that the family or attempts to act as family were clear goals of the enslaved. Judy substantiates the importance of looking at the family in researching the UGRR. Also see http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/pds/maai/community/text1/text1read.htm Billie’s “Historic Memory of Resistance” draws a link between enslaved women’s resistance in the early 19th century and the Civil Rights Movement of the 20th. It’s very exciting to see the wealth of work that is being undertaken by all of you -- even more so as you indicate where topical areas remain that may interest student, professional and avocational historians.
Thank you Delores for raising these gendered questions. And many thanks to Fergus, Kate and Judith - all of whom have inspired me to explore the question of African American women's resistance/rebellion to slavery and its legacies of oppression, from Colonial times forward. Judith Wellman's work on the central New York State Underground Railroad activism, with its uncovering of new data on the numbers and activity of African American women freedom seekers has been especially influential. One of the fiercest impediments to research in this arena is, as Fergus has pointed out, the scattering and disappearance of documents. It is an enormous issue in women's history generally and even more serious when attempting to study and uncover the work and movement of African American women. A factor I have found of great assistance is what I call the historic memory of resistance that is articulated and expressed in the writing, work projects and organizing of the African American women who were born free in the early 19th century and those who were the first generation born free whose parents had been enslaved. These women built a parallel infrastructure to the white-dominated antislavery societies and later women's conventions and suffrage associations, culminating in the emergence of the NACW at the end of the century. It was a part of the 19th c. web of interconnection, an Internet of its time. Schools, mutual aid societies, writing, publishing, and church-based organizing created by African American women became vehicles that form the direct links between slavery resistance and the birth of the 20th c. Civil Rights movement. Mary Ann Shadd Cary returns to the US from Canada, eventually goes to Howard Law School and practices in the District till her death. Mary B. Talbert, primary preserver of the Douglass home in Anacostia, appears at Harriet Tubman's funeral in 1913 eulogizing her and recognizing her role in the freedom struggle. Mary Church Terrell comes to Seneca Falls, as an invited keynoter in 1908 to acknowledge and commemorate the 60th anniversary of the 1848 Convention and to celebrate Frederick Douglass' role at the Convention and his pivotal advocacy of women's rights. Terrell lives on into 1954 and dies soon after the Brown decision, fighting to the end of her life to end segregation in DC's eating places and public accommodations - a fight begun when Sojourner Truth attempted to desegregate the street cars in DC in the period of her Freedmen's Bureau work during the Civil War. The connective and conscious historicity of these women distinguishes their work, not only "lifting as we climb," but educating and inspiring their contemporaries and those yet to come to remember the women Charlotta Bass calls the "Mothers of 100 Rebellions." Billie Luisi-Potts
Fergus, Delores, and Kate--All these comments are wonderful--worthy of the careful attention to evidence and extraordinarily sensitive interpretation that all of you exhibit, as always! Fergus, you have convinced me that almost all laborers on the capital were men. So glad you looked at this question so carefully. I have been working on women in the Underground Railroad in upstate New York, both those who were escaping from slavery and those who were helpers. Anecdotal evidence about women and children is abundant. Census records suggest that women made up 30-40 percent of those who African Americans who listed their birthplaces as a southern state and settled in New York State. Use of place and birth has its problems, since some southern-born people may have been legally manumitted, rather than traveling on the UGRR. Nevertheless, it does give us a different perspective, and it does support the impression we have from anecdotal evidence. People often traveled as family groups, and children were included. Thank you all so much for raising this very important issue!
These are excellent issues to raise, Delores. I asked them myself in the course of researching my recent book Washington: The Making of the American Capital, which focuses on how between 1790 and 1800 the politics of slavery shaped the creation of the national capital, and the role that enslaved African Americans played in building it. Put briefly, Washington DC would not be where it is but for the political power of slavery, and it could not have been built without slave labor. That said, did women -- particularly enslaved women -- play a role in the early construction of the capital? The National Archives holds copious records bearing on the use of slave labor by the federal government -- thousands of "pay stubs" listing the names of enslaved workers, what they did, and how much their owners were paid for their labor. At any given time, during the 1790s, there were probably about 300 slaves at work in the federal district at any given time, virtually all of them performing heavy labor such as felling trees, building streets, sawing lumber, and the like. There is no documentary evidence at all for the use of enslaved women; all the names are clearly male. Is it possible that some women served as cooks, laundry workers, and in other roles? Certainly. But there is no evidence for it. There are, however, a very few references to the wives of white workmen (who made up roughly half the workforce), at least one of whom turned her hut into a "grog shop" for the workers. As I mention in my book, perhaps the most enigmatic single worker connected with the early building of Washington was the vividly named Anise-Chloe Leclear (or LeClair), who served as a nurse in the workers' hospital in 1795 at a salary of $10 per month. It is impossible to tell from the records if she was white or black. She was evidently a free person, and illiterate, since she signed for her wages with an "X." She would seem to have been French, given her name. However, it seems highly unlikely (though not impossible) that a white woman would be hired to tend male slaves, who comprised most of the infirmary's clientele. Leclear may possibly have been a refugee from Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti), one of the thousands who poured into the U.S. helter-skelter in the early 1790s. She may have been an impoverished white colonial, of course, but just as likely a free mulatto, some of whom fled with the whites, or even a former slave who managed to acquire her freedom. If so, she was the first, and probably the only, salaried black woman to participate in the creation of the nation's capital. The dearth of records, apart from those of the Federal Commissioners which I referred to above, makes this a challenging area of research. But I believe that there are veins of gold still to be discovered. One difficult but possibly rewarding avenue could be to investigate the records of the slave-owning families already based in the Federal District in the 1790s, to see if any leased enslaved women to private contractors who were performing various tasks in the District. My own exploration of such records turned up no pertinent examples. But they may be out there somewhere. After 1800, and the relocation of the Federal Government from Philadelphia to Washington, things change. White and free black women begin appearing as entrepreneurs -- shop owners, seamstresses, and so on. And of course, as one would expect, enslaved women arrive to become servants in many homes.
This is great Delores! Very important and interesting questions and observations we all need to be mindful of. As a researcher in this particular field, I can attest to the incredible dearth of records about women - regardless of race, economic status, age, condition of servitude, etc., - but they certainly can be uncovered and much gleaned from them in a small number of cases. Fergus may be able to tell us what is in those particular records. That said, however, we must be careful in demanding that all historians/journalists cover every perspective, etc. - I firmly believe that historians come to the table with their own interests and biases and expertise. Each helps build an ever growing foundation and add additional bricks and mortar to the stories of our nation's past. While the histories of women of all backgrounds remain mightily weak in our national narratives, some are finally seeing the light of day and the attention they deserve. Let us allow historians and others who find those histories worth researching and writing about do just that, and those who do not, then so be it. What Fergus did not focus on can become the dissertation topic for a graduate student who may rock our world with his or her research, which they will then add to Fergus's already well done history of the building of Washington, DC. Reminding historians and journalists that there are multiple perspectives is vitally important, however, to the furtherance of the work, as it is those established historians and journalists who will influence and mentor the next generations of scholars and writers.