Thursday, December 13, 2012

Public History and Smithsonian Slavery

It has been a fascinating day. Late last night, the on line, open access journal Southern Spaces published my paper, "Enslaved Labor and Building the Smithsonian Castle":

Simultaneously, the Washington Post published an article by noted reporter Manuel Roig-Franzia (with help from Megan McDonough) on my paper, "Researcher finds slaves quarried sandstone used to build Smithsonian Castle."

As of this evening, the Post article has elicited something like 869 on line comments, and risen to be the second most popular article in the  day's Style section of the Post website. It has been circulated nationally on AP Wire, and seems be showing up around the country.  I've gotten many emails and calls from interested parties, some with very strong opinions on my paper or the Post article.

Many of the comments on the Post website are, I'm afraid, inane or vituperative, dismissing the whole consideration of the legacies of slavery in American society, often re-visiting long running debates over reparations and affirmative action, sometimes with racially insensitive or inflammatory language. Yet some of the postings are deeply thoughtful and sensitive.

For the record, I reproduce some of the more interesting, insightful postings below, starting with the most recent and going back to about 8:00 a.m. this morning (Eastern Time).

Researcher finds slaves quarried sandstone used to build Smithsonian Castle."  (Washington Post) 
Dec 13, 2012


8:59 PM PST
I've seen the wills and inventories that list at least 538 people enslaved by my family over seven generations. Seeing those documents, as well as letters, led me to start looking for the descendants of those 538 people. We share part of the same story. 


Brilliant work and most provocative. This only makes the Smithsonian a more interesting piece of history! I'd love to hear read more about the work of Mark Auslander.


Why shouldn’t we unearth all of our history? Why examine our past at all, without every peice of the puzzle? 
We need to know who built our monuments, if only to get a broader picture of who built our society. George Washington’s freed his slaves, but the rest of the Washington family – my family – did not. Why? 
I’m examining my family’s history of slaveholding - many other people are looking at their own family's legacy. I want to build a firmer foundation for my own life by tracing the lives of others, enslaved and free. It’s all part of the same story, whether we want to hear it or not.  

Negro Scholar

As a scholar of U.S. history I am quite intrigued by Dr. Auslander's research. The layers of slavery's footprint on this nation, its institutions, and the capital are still being uncovered. Thanks for sharing this important find!

Sylvia Wong

Thank you for this article. It proves a truth about the Smithsonian 'castle' bulding that so many African Americans had only known through oral history. I hope that you will publish more stories about slavery in the hopes that intelligent dialogue will begin to heal the racism and ignorance that plagues this nation.

3:06 PM PST

It is good to increase our knowledge and knowing how we got where we are is helpful. Today, we acknowledge slavery as a dark period in American history but it is also just part of the continuum of slavery in its various guises around the world. Slavery exists still. Since slavery was legal at the time, the builders did nothing illegal if they used slave labor. The builders likely had no moral issues with the use of slaves in building the Castle. That was then.  

If confirmed, Secretary Clough should publicly acknowledge this and then move on with the business of increasing and diffusing knowledge.


Considering the conditions at the time, it is not nor should it be surprising that slave labor was involved. In fact it would have been surprising had it not been utilized. 
But the fact that slave labor was used in no way diminishes the importance of the collections housed there. It only adds to the history of our nation, reflecting a time when social and cultural mores reflected the status quo. Thankfully we now are more enlightened, but still have a ways to go before we are a truly raceless society...from all sides. 


As the white father, of mixed-race kids, I can’t afford to turn a blind-eye to such great/valuable information…as detailed in this article. I have the responsibility – as a responsible parent – to teach my children about the past, the better present, and the hope of the future. There is no reason to take offense to history – whether you’re white, or black. It’s history.

E Ferry

I love this article - the use of this kind of painstaking research to raise thorny issues of the role of slavery in the foundation of a great American institution is not only fascinating from a scholarly perspective, but also a great contribution to public discussion.

1:27 PM PST

Are you kidding? This is a hugely important DC landmark that millions of people visit every year. Its mission is devoted to knowledge and education. Reckoning with its own connections to one of the most tragic aspects of our history (and to our foremost Founding Father, no less) is a fantastic teachable moment. It is interesting, informative, and thought provoking. It is also saddening, in a way that good history often is.


This was a very interesting article having to do with the history of slavery in Washington D.C.. Nowhere did I notice any type of political agenda threaded through it. It simply reported an interesting history.  

How sad that people from BOTH sides of the equation would choose to advance their own agenda of today based on events of over 160 years ago.

11:27 AM PST

This is about giving credit where its due when it came to how, where to and to what extent slaves were used in building government building. Most would prefer to keep their hands clean when it come to "fessing" up.


Some folks seem a bit defensive about the slavery issue. What's that about? If one had slave holding forbears, there is no need for guilt by association. We cannot choose our ancestors.  

Meanwhile, it is a fascinating article. The footprint of slavery shows up in so many different ways.  
Thank you, Washington Post.


So those lazy black slaves helped BUILD the White House and Capital Building and, at the very least, quarried the bricks that became the Smithsonian Castle.  

Everytime a white person stereotypically looks down upon an African American's as being "lazy" they should take a stroll down Pennsylvania and imagine all of the blood, sweat and tears the free labor shed in what has become Americas most famous landmarks.


Was this ever disputed? Slavery was legal in both Maryland and the District of Columbia during this time. It is any surprise that slave labor was used? 

I think it would have been more surprising to learn that slave labor had NOT been used for construction projects during this time.


I'm puzzled why folks are so defensive. This article shines a light where it was needed. Some people were unaware of the extent of the slaves' involvement with the building of various buildings in Washington, DC. I don't see any harm in pointing out the fact. In fact, I welcome it. Truth should always be welcome. I was born and raised in the District so I am well aware of the significance of the slaves' contribution to the architecture of DC (as well as other cultural feats). So I applaud the Post for posting such an article. BTW, the article takes a well balanced look. Any attempt to slant the article or point fingers is brought by the reader him/herself -- not the author of this article.

10:26 AM PST

No one is trying to admonish the Smithsonian because slave labor was used to help build the castle, as you mention, at a time when it was legal. However, the Smithsonian's own mission statement talks about preserving our heritage. Right or wrong, part of that heritage is that one of their most iconic buildings was , in part, built by slave labor. If they are going give credit to the architects for their part, they should give credit the slaves that provided the labor and not be ashamed to do so. It's proper and historically accurate. 
The Korean's destruction of the Japanese built capitol is a different thing all together. This happened shortly after brutal occupation and the destruction of Korea's forests and other natural assets. They did not want the symbol of their country to be something designed, built and occupied by their oppressors. 


As a former African American history minor in college, I find stuff like this so interesting. I wonder about the new museum will highlight this.


As the anthropologist who authored the Southern Spaces paper in question, at 
I do want to emphasize, in case a different impression was left, that the scholars and staff at the Smithsonian Institution Archives have always been extraordinarily generous with their time and intellectual energy in assisting me in their research. It is a wonderful archives, and the staff has been deeply committed to helping unearth these important stories. Indeed, as a perusal of their wonderful website (linked to in my article) shows, the Institutional History Division has been at the forefront in documenting and publicizing African American contributions, including the story of Solomon Brown. I believe senior Smithsonian leadership is in the midst of reflecting on how the whole institution can acknowledge histories of slavery & Jim Crow, along the lines of William & Mary College and Emory and Brown universities

10:18 AM PST

I have no trouble believing that. The folks at the Smithsonian are excellent, all around. It's a complex history, and is worth looking straight at.  

Thanks for your work!
Liked by 3 readers


I don't see harm with putting a few placards up on the walls here and there. 

"This tree is a bicucatus polydidiadus, planted by Pres. Grant." 

"These rocks came from a quarry that belonged to Whatsisface, grandson of Martha Washington, who inherited her slaves ansd started a quarrying business."


I've lived in this town for over 20 years now, and am passionate about history, yet I never realized the White House and Capitol were in part built by slaves. It's interesting how we like to sweep some parts of our glorious history under the rug, all in the apparent name of holding up the "founding fathers" to be godlike figures


Very interesting article. I did not realize that upon Martha Washington's death that her dower slaves were inherited by her relatives.


Interesting article. The structures of slavery are still with us. But, if we are ignorant of the physical artifacts, then even less is known about the cultural, economic, and legal legacy.


Most pre-Civil war structures in the South and border states likely had direct or indirect contributions of labor from slaves, in earlier structures indentured service by more than one race. It is important to honor the contributions, even now, so that descendants of all races in this country will know that the hands of labor had many hues and many circumstances.


It's important to note the contributions of African Americans to the building of this nation. Too often black people are made to feel that they did not contribute to the building of this nation, that they should be more grateful than other groups for being in the US, and that they are "less" American than whites.

9:36 AM PST

That's the point-- there have been arguments about whether enslaved persons were used to build the Smithsonian. (It's building has been completely attributed to European settlers and their descendants). 

As stated: "the Smithsonian has been reluctant over the years to address whether slave labor might have played a part in the history of the Castle"


I think this is very important research from any objective standpoint. I can't understand the comments that minimize the importance of it, even from the nutty point of view that slavery was ok back then. It's part of the history of this area. I'm not a historian, but the Washington area is very important to the history of the US and there are still a lot of stories that haven't been told. I never thought of this as the deep south, but mills along Rock Creek used slave labor, which was in the heart of DC.

Felicia Furman

Thanks to Mark Auslander for revealing another hidden example of the use of slave labor in this country. It would be hard to find any building or infrastructure built before the Civil War that didn't use slave labor. Its hardly controversial anymore except for the fact that many whites still deny the privelege their ancestors seized by exploiting people of African descent. The point is that the US was built on the backs of slaves and formed the foundation of our economy, society and culture. Why are we so afraid to accept the reality of our past?


It is important to recognize and evidence the history that has held up our current institutions. Though this is something we may believe has always been the case Dr. Ausslander work helps us reckon with our own complicities.

Rick Wilson

It is SO IMPORTANT to face our national amnesia about the position of slavery as the economic engine that established the United States and continues to sustain it.. Articles like this help us to face ALL our history - not just the filtered 'good parts.' Hope this is the first of many pieces.


it is SO long overdue to give credit where credit is due. This is such a horrible part of our history, but it is our history and should be documented, hopefully so it won't happen again. Stand up and recognize these great men who built our country once and for all! They didn't have a choice, they didn't get paid.. they didn't get health care. They didn't even get respect.  
This must change.  


Articles like this one are important because they shine a light on how enslaved Africans were central to the creation of this country and its economy. If we are to heal the wounds of enslavement and present day racism, we need to begin by knowing the whole story of the U.S. We need more articles and discussions like this one

Hope Amason

Thanks for this article! I can only hope that there will be plans to make visible the history discovered by Prof. Auslander for future visitors to the Smithsonian.

Katrina Browne

efg2: The story suggests it's not clear whether those who worked directly on the building were enslaved, but that it IS clear that those working at the quarry were enslaved.  

The larger point, to me, as a white woman whose family history includes major Northern slave trading, is that it is important to absorb the degree to which enslavement was fundamental to the development of this country. The details of that are everywhere you turn: in the North, the South, the Midwest and West too actually, when you look into it, and yes, the nation's capital. To dig into these details, as Prof. Auslander has, need not be a basis for white Americans to "freak out"--as we often do in a host of ways, but to take it in, empathize with black Americans who feel we never want to talk about this history, and to see where SHARED dismay about the past might take us as we look around today. 

Kudos to the Post for covering this!

Grant Hayter-Menzies

When we as Americans, both north and south, realize that our nation was built by the labor of enslaved persons, we will not only begin to appreciate the work of these many nameless contributors to who we are today but recognize that historical harms still need to be healed. Dr. Auslander is doing what we all should be doing - facing the past and working for that healing, for then and for today. 

Grant Hayter-Menzies (descendant of enslavers from New England and the Deep South)

Carol Maurer

Acknowledgment is key in order to heal historical harms...kudos to Mark for 'following the bread crumbs' and then refusing to sweep them under the rug!

Karen Branan
6:30 AM PST

Congratulations to Mark Auslander for his important research and to Roig-Franzia for giving this valuable story a wider hearing. As a Capital Hill resident, journalist, and ever-hopeful Post reader I look forward to more stories along these lines.


Given the prevalence of slavery in the part of Maryland where the quarry was located, it would be more surprising to learn that slaves were NOT involved in the quarrying and building process. Kudos to Dr. Auslander for "following the bread crumbs" and giving us some "official" evidence. 

What surprises me (though perhaps it shouldn't) is that Smithsonian officials for some reason are reluctant to explore these kinds of issues. History is not and should not be an exercise in celebration and self-congratulation. For history to really matter, we need to grapple with difficult issues. The reality is that Washington was a slave city all the way up to 1862 -- in the 1830s, it was the largest slave-trading city in the nation (thanks in large part to Alexandria, which was then a part of DC). Why are people so reluctant to admit the centrality of slavery to the economy and social life of the city (and the nation)?

 David Pettee

The power of this kind of research underscores once again the fundamental role that African Americans played in truly building up this country. None of us should be surprised any longer about the integral role that slavery played in the construction of much of the hallowed architecture around the District. Why the current tenants of the Smithsonian should have the slightest misgiving about accepting this news is puzzling. What an opportunity for deeper conversation! Doesn't the vision of the Smithsonian involve "shaping the future by preserving our heritage, discovering new knowledge, and sharing our resources with the world?" 

David Pettee 
Boston, MA

This is fascinating information that I will share with the thousands of people who follow my Our Black Ancestry website and FB page. Excellent research!

No comments:

Post a Comment