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House Task Force to Study Slave Construction of Capitol

The U.S. Capitol (search) was built with the labor of slaves who cut the logs, laid the stones and baked the bricks. Two centuries later, Congress has decided the world should know about this.

Congressional leaders on Tuesday announced the creation of a task force to study the history of slave labor in the construction of the Capitol and suggest how it can best be commemorated.

"It is our hope that the work of the task force will shed light on this part of our history, the building of our nation's greatest symbol of democracy," House Speaker Dennis Hastert, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, and Democratic leaders Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Harry Reid said in a joint statement.

Historians say slaves were the largest labor pool when Congress in 1790 decided to create a new national capital along the Potomac surrounded by the two slave-owning states of Maryland and Virginia.

Over the next decade, local farmers rented out their slaves for an average of $55 a year to help build the Capitol, the White House, the Treasury Department and the streets laid out by city planner Pierre L'Enfant (search).

Slaves cut trees on the hill where the Capitol would stand, cleared stumps from the new streets, worked in the stone quarries where sandstone was cut and assisted the masons laying stone for the walls of the new homes of Congress and the president.

They also were involved in the expansion of the Capitol in the late 1850s.

Sen. Blanche Lincoln (search), D-Ark., a task force member, said lawmakers became aware of the use of slaves after researchers in the late 1990s found documents of Treasury Department payments to slave owners. She said there apparently were more than 400 slaves hired out.

In 2000, Lincoln and former Sen. Spencer Abraham, R-Mich., in the Senate, and Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., and former Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla., in the House, pushed through legislation approving the formation of a task force.

But Lincoln said that due to changes in control of the Senate, it's taken until now to implement that legislation.

"It's certainly long overdue," she said. "The task force will have a great opportunity to bring forward basically a history lesson as well as an appropriate memorial."

Lewis, a veteran of the civil rights movement, said the opening of a new Capitol visitors' center next year might provide a venue for recognizing the slaves.

"We need to find someplace not only to place a statue or appropriate symbol, we also need to find a way to tell their story," he said.

Lewis and Watts are to co-chair the panel. Among the other participants are Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., Langston University historian Dr. Currie Ballard and Dr. Bettye Gardner, historian with the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History.