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BI graduate reveals African-American contributions

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POSTED: March 15, 2007 5:13 a.m.
Many people don’t know African Americans had a role in the history of the United States Capitol and Hinesville native Felicia Bell wants to change that.
The 1993 Bradwell Institute graduate has a love for history. After graduating from Savannah State University and the Savannah College of Art and Design, Bell moved to Washington, D.C. in 2002. She later became the Director of Education and Outreach at the United States Capitol Historical Society, Washington, D.C.
Bell was in the area earlier this month showcasing the Society’s newest traveling exhibit, “From Freedom’s Shadow: African Americans and the United States Capitol.” From Freedom’s Shadow is a multi-paneled exhibit that explains the African American experience and involvement at the Capitol. It portrays Benjamin Banneker’s assistance in surveying the federal city, the enslaved and free blacks who helped to construct the Capitol building, segregation in the Capitol, representation of African Americans in the Capitol’s artwork, and African American members of Congress who currently represent the interests of every American,” Bell said.
The exhibit, to be displayed in various cities through 2008, depicts the journey of African Americans from slavery to freedom and political representation in the U.S. Capitol.
The very existence of the exhibit was borne out of Bell’s own curiosity about the level of African American involvement. After visits to the Capitol on several occasions, Bell said she and others noticed the absence of any mention of the topic.
“I’d been on several tours of the Capitol and it wasn’t a topic discussed,” she said. “The public would approach me and ask me about whether it was true that blacks had constructed the Capitol. We (the Society) would receive phone calls and there were events where people would ask about the contributions of blacks,” Bell said.
“I thought that it would be a good idea to find out more and somehow make it available to the public.” She and a colleague made a mutual decision to conduct research from existing literature and in the actual architectural plans for the Capitol.
“This particular part of history is lacking or missing from the vast body of literature. I wanted to do this not only to answer their questions but my own. Then I just became more and more intrigued with the topic,” Bell said.
The title of the exhibit was pulled from a portion of a speech made by Georgia Congressman John Lewis in 2003. “For too long, African Americans struggled in the shadows of America. As sharecroppers, as the victims of Jim Crow, our ancestors lived I this great nation, but we are never quite part of it,” he said.
Bell’s research led to the determination that freedom for some meant slavery for others.  The cruel irony of this nation’s founding and its “Temple of Liberty”— the U.S. Capitol— is that both were made possible by the enslavement of African Americans. Although account ledgers listed only white workers and free men of color with two names, research proved slaves worked but their owners signed for their pay.
The labor of enslaved and free blacks helped build the Capitol. An enslaved African American man helped to cast the Statue of Freedom, which was placed atop the Dome during the Civil War.
The exhibit is the result of six months of research and is ongoing, Bell said. Her journey to increase public awareness and gain a more complete history of the United States Capitol has led her to work toward a doctoral degree in history at Howard University.
 “We just wanted to contribute this effort to making the public aware that it does exist.”

About USCHS
USCHS was founded in 1962 as a nonpartisan and nonprofit organization. It is chartered by Congress to educate the public on the history and heritage of the U.S. Capitol building, its institutions and the people who have served and helped build it.
USCHS funding comes from various sources including individuals, gifts, grants, tours and the sale of educational items. To learn more and join the Society go to www.uschs.org

 

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