Grounds For Serious Reflection

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 30, 2006

In 1863, Philip Reid, a slave, finished supervising the bronze casting of the statue "Freedom" for the U.S. Capitol. When it was hoisted atop the dome, a 35-gun salute rattled across Capitol Hill.

A hundred years later on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. declared that black citizens should be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. Hundreds of thousands cheered.

The vast ribbon of grass between the majestic Lincoln and the marble Capitol has been a public stage for all Americans, but African American history especially has played out on and around the Mall in scenes that are symbolic, salutary and shameful.

Everywhere on the Mall are echoes of marching feet, slaves' cries, market peddlers' calls, children's laughter and the singing of black men at the Million Man March.

But there never has been a place there to commemorate the African American story. Today, more than 42 years after King's triumphant moment, that history is expected to find a home. The Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution is scheduled to meet this morning to select a site for the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Of the four spots under consideration, two are on the Mall and two are nearby.

Some groups argue that the Mall is too crowded. But others -- including President Bush and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) -- argue that the museum needs to be on the Mall because the place is so central to African American history and because it is impossible to understand American history without understanding the African American experience.

"In the 20th century, the Mall became a magnet for political expression not only for its accommodating space but also the symbolic -- and in the television age -- photogenic backdrop of the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial," says Lonnie G. Bunch, director of the African American museum. "Almost every story you want to tell crosses the Mall, all protests from the right to the left. For African Americans, there's no greater symbol than being in view of the Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial and the White House. It reminds people of America's promise. Not only am I protesting, but I am using your symbols of power as a way to mirror and remind us of what America doesn't do."

A Cloaked Past

Some of this history is burned into public consciousness, such as the grand Marian Anderson singing "My country, 'tis of thee" on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 after the Daughters of the American Revolution shut their doors to her at Constitution Hall. But much of it is hidden.

Few tourists hear of the pens where slaves were kept on the Capitol grounds or learn about Benjamin Banneker, a self-taught astronomer and mathematician working with Pierre L'Enfant, who designed the city of Washington in 1791.

"The country has always been reluctant to come to grips with the slave part of its history. Washington, more than any other city, has that contradiction," says journalist Charles Cobb, who is writing a tour guide to national civil rights landmarks. "People look at the South with the cotton plantations and sugar plantations and say, yes, slavery.

"But the idea of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison as slaveholders is a much more difficult idea. You don't sit in Lafayette Square and think about the slave auction block."

The slave trade was legal in the District until 1850. According to the late historian Frederic Bancroft, Washington merchants conducted a brisk slave trade that, "although far from being the largest, was the most notorious." The city provided slave buyers and purchasers a good location, between two slaveholding states, Maryland and Virginia, and on a major waterway.

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