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Mark Auslander: Enslaved Labor and Building the Smithsonian -- Reading the Stones

And what erudition. He can even read stone. Only he never figures out that the veins in the marble of Diocletian's baths are the burst blood vessels of slaves from the stone quarries.

—Zbigniew Herbert, "Classic."1

Were enslaved persons involved in the construction of the original Smithsonian building, known today as "The Castle"? As is well established, enslaved African Americans worked on the construction of many buildings in antebellum Washington, D.C., including the U.S. Capitol and the White House, rarely receiving any monetary compensation.2 Was this true for the Smithsonian as well?

First, a little background. Slavery was an active presence in Washington during the years that the first Smithsonian building was under construction, from 1847 to 1855. To the immediate south of the Smithsonian grounds lay two of the most notorious 'slave pens' in the region, where persons of color, many of them kidnapped or arrested on the flimsiest of pretexts, were held under horrific conditions pending their sale to points south.3 One of these, the Williams House or "Yellow House" was located on the south side of "B" street (now Independence Avenue), more or less across the street from the present location of the Hirshhorn Museum. In 1850, Smithsonian regent Jefferson Davis, future president of the Confederacy, remarked of this structure, "It is the house by which all must go who wish to reach the building of the Smithsonian Institution." Davis, a defender of slavery, claimed the building looked quite benign to him, but many abolitionist commentators circulated detailed narratives of the horrors that occurred within it.

A block away, at 7th and Maryland (the area now occupied by a park in front of Capital Gallery) stood the equally notorious Robey Tavern and Slave Pen. Coffles of chained enslaved people were regularly marched through the streets of downtown Washington, attracting a series of outraged petitions by anti-slavery advocates across the nation and inspiring passionate Congressional speeches by abolitionist representatives, appalled that slavery and the slave trade were openly conducted in the nation's capital. The spring that construction began in earnest on the Smithsonian building saw one of the most dramatic incidents in the local history of slavery; in April 1848, over seventy enslaved persons attempted to escape Washington on board the schooner Pearl. They were soon recaptured. Most were taken to the New Orleans slave markets to be sold into plantations in the Deep South; some were transferred back to Alexandria, Virginia, to be sold there. The freedom of the two most prominent escapees, the Edmonson sisters, was purchased by Reverend Henry Ward Beecher's Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn, New York, where Reverend Beecher famously staged a mock "auction" of the two young women to raise funds.4

Read entire article at Southern Spaces