Thursday, February 19, 2009

Slavery and Our Country's Past

On Wednesday Michelle Obama asked a group of 6th and 7th graders visiting the White House, "Did you know that African American slaves helped to build this house?" It's a rare moment of honesty about our country's past.

It reminded me of last weekend, when my cousin was visiting D.C. we went to the top of the Washington monument, something I've never done in the two-and-a-half years I've lived in the city. On the elevator on the way down, a man in a top hat and penguin suit that worked for the Park Service mentioned that "some may wonder" if the monument was built by slaves. The answer? Apparently no one is sure -- or willing to admit -- how many, if any, slaves were used to build the Washington monument.

Robert Mills, the architect of the monument, once wrote that "slavery is an evil" and some believed he paid everyone that worked on the project. But I tend to think that historic opposition to slavery is often mistakenly equated with modern equality work. Even if it's true that Mills opposed slavery and demanded that the blacks working on the project be paid, it's almost certain they were paid at a lower rate than the white workers. After all, it's clear that even as the country's foremost abolitionist, Abraham Lincoln still didn't believe in equality for whites and blacks. It was the attitude of the time, but that doesn't excuse it.

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