A Name Change To Honor Slaves Who Built Capitol

Friday, June 15, 2007

Abraham Lincoln was injected into an otherwise staid budget discussion by the House Appropriations Committee this week, when Reps. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) and Jesse L. Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) argued that the main entry hall of the planned Capitol Visitors Center should be named to honor the slaves who built the Capitol.

The two lawmakers convinced the panel to toss out plans to call the 20,000-square-foot hall "the Great Hall" and instead name it "Emancipation Hall," despite the fact that $250,000 in signs saying "Great Hall" had already been purchased.

"The very people who built this shrine of freedom were slaves and not recognized properly," said Wamp, who proposed the name change in an amendment to the legislative branch's spending bill for fiscal 2008. "This new hall is going to be the largest space in the new visitors center, it's going to be like the Grand Central Station of the Capitol, and what better way to honor the people who built the Capitol than call it Emancipation Hall? I didn't think this up, I felt it. It's the right thing to do."

The $592 million visitors center is to open next year, three years behind schedule and $357 million over the original budget.

Wamp, a self-taught Capitol historian who has conducted 1,700 tours of the building for constituent groups, said that nothing in the Capitol refers to the slaves who toiled there and that it didn't matter that "Great Hall" had already been chosen by the Architect of the Capitol. "It doesn't mean you should keep a mistake," he said.

Jackson dismissed objections by other lawmakers by making a dramatic case for the name change. "Emancipation is the great, enduring theme of our nation's still unfolding story," he said. "Without emancipation, our house divided would not have stood. We would not be a beacon of freedom and democracy around the world. We would never have had, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, 'a new birth of freedom.' "

The committee approved the name change on a voice vote. It will come up for a vote on the House floor next week.

-- Lyndsey Layton

© 2007 The Washington Post Company