Howard County Times
Howard County

Filling in blanks


ince Washington has had a majority African-American population for many years, monuments in the city to important blacks should be a cinch to locate, right?

At least that's what author and journalist Jesse J. Holland thought when he moved to the nation's capital a decade ago and embarked on a mission to acquaint himself with the history of a city that is practically overrun with statues.


What he discovered was eye-opening, he told an audience of 30 who gathered Wednesday to hear him talk about his book, "Black Men Built the Capitol," at the central library in Columbia.

"If you only toured the National Mall, you'd insist that African-Americans never lived in Washington," the Mississippi native said, noting that blacks aren't afforded any recognition in the national park that is lined with museums.


Aside from a bust of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., only two black people are commemorated in statuary in all of D.C., he said, both of them in Lincoln Park.

This discovery led to an epiphany for Holland, an Associated Press writer who covers the Supreme Court. He decided to take an 18-month leave of absence from his job to assemble a book that consolidates information about the contributions of African-Americans, mainly to the construction of historic buildings in Washington.

"This is not the definitive story, because every day we learn something new," he cautioned. "This book is just my first attempt."

But despite the title Holland chose - which originally was "Black Men Built the White House," until corroboration of that fact was not readily accessible - the 38-year-old journalist said his first book is about American history, not black history.

"While my most receptive audiences have been largely African-American, all races, sexes and classes have turned out for these talks because they recognize the value of this information," Holland said.

Fred Dorsey, vice president of Preservation Howard County, which aims to preserve the county's historical and cultural heritage, was among those who attended.

"I've read about black laborers in Washington before, so I wanted to learn more," Dorsey said before the talk began.

He hadn't yet read the book, he said, but he hoped it might touch on Andrew Ellicott and Benjamin Banneker, two well-known local men who played a major role in planning the capital city's layout - one a white man, an accomplished surveyor and the son of one of the three brothers who founded what is now Ellicott City; and the other a black man who grew up in neighboring Baltimore County and was known for his achievements in science and astronomy.


"They finished surveying Washington after [original engineer Pierre Charles] L'Enfant left in a huff," Dorsey noted.

Holland later reported that a foundation is raising funds to build a statue of Banneker, "one of the first and greatest African-American scientists," who currently is memorialized in Washington only as a figure in fountain (that no longer works).

Elaine Johnson, assistant librarian at the central branch of the Howard County Library, said she scheduled Holland at the recommendation of a friend who had heard him speak. And, she added, she deliberately avoided choosing a slot in February because she "didn't want to relegate the event to Black History Month," saying the book's information deserves a wider audience.

Johnson reviewed the book as an entry to the Highly Recommended blog on the library's Web site, where she says Holland "brings [new research] to light in a powerful retelling of an important part of our nation's history."

Holland described his book as a consolidation of information that isn't readily available to the general public, and noted his surprise at the number of African-Americans who reacted negatively to its publication.

"They told me they already knew this stuff," he said. "I told them that everybody doesn't know it and that oral histories can be lost over time. I hope to prevent that from happening."


The book's title was derived from information Holland unearthed at the National Archives, he said.

"One thing the federal government is good at is paperwork," he said to a lot of nodding heads. He explained that receipts still exist showing the government rented 400 slaves to assist in the original construction of the Capitol at the going monthly rate of $5 apiece.

"They worked on the baking of bricks, the clearing of land and all sorts of manual labor," he said. "But they also carved and quarried the marble columns in the National Statuary Hall." Figures of Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth are finally planned for that building, he noted.

Holland said one of the book's most interesting stories is about Freedman's Village, a town founded by slaves where Section 27 of Arlington National Cemetery is now located, near the Iwo Jima Memorial. It is depicted in a photograph in his paperback.

After evicting the black inhabitants, the federal government bulldozed the entire village except for the graves, which had first-name-only tombstones, he said.

Very few artifacts of Freedman's Village remain, though some descendants of village residents claim to possess the bell from the town's church, he added.


Holland later recounted the tale of a student who had e-mailed him to report that she was doing a class project on his book, and then contacted him a second time to say she'd been given a failing grade.

"Her teacher said the project was to focus on a nonfiction work, and [the teacher said] my book was clearly one of fiction," he said, adding that he soon joined the girl's parents for a long talk with her teacher to resolve the issue.

"I guarantee that everything in there is backed up by documentation," Holland said, eliciting an audience member's request for an example of a "juicy story" that he couldn't validate for inclusion.

"I am already working on another book that takes up where this one left off," he replied, dodging the question with a chuckle. "It's funny how historians are willing to work with me now that we have a black president."

Afterward, Johnson said she thought Holland's presentation was excellent, adding that she wished he'd been one of her history teachers when she was young because he "made everything come alive."

Robyn Smith, a systems engineer at Fort Meade who also teaches genealogy at Howard Community College, said she is always searching for books that focus on little-known history, and Holland's work fit the bill.


"I was born in Washington, and I knew some of this, but there's other information that I didn't know," said the Columbia resident. "It would be my dream to see this incorporated into our history and learning."

Holland praised the audience after his speech, saying, "This particular audience was great because they asked me questions. That's how you know they were listening and actually interested."

Local ties

Holland devotes three chapters to discovering black history in Washington, Maryland and Virginia, explaining that the District's fate is forever tied to its northern and southern neighbors for giving land to the federal government for the city's founding in 1790.

Maryland has "unquestionably played a tremendous role in the history of African-Americans in this country," he writes. He goes on to list places within reach of the District of Columbia "that should appeal to anyone interested in African-American history."

Along with sections devoted to Montgomery, Prince George's, Baltimore and Washington counties and the cities of Baltimore and Annapolis, are two pages about Howard County. Holland recommends visits to two Columbia museums on the Historic Oakland property on Vantage Point Road.

•The Howard County Center of African-American Culture: "Fans of both antique and modern memorabilia will love this museum, which boasts an extensive collection dating as far back as the 1800s ... and also including the first Wheaties box featuring athlete Walter Payton, dolls representing Flip Wilson, M.C. Hammer and Michael Jackson, and an extensive collection of books, records, stamps and photographs."


•The African Art Museum of Maryland: "Founded in 1980 as the only museum in the nation established by African-Americans for the display of African art ... the museum boasts an impressive collection of masks, sculptures, textiles, baskets, jewelry and musical instruments. Only a portion of the 2,500-piece collection is on display at any given time."