WASHINGTON — When the 118th Congress is sworn in on Jan. 3, its members will walk the halls of a building whose paintings and statues pay homage to 140 enslavers.
As part of a year-long investigation into Congress’s relationship with slavery, The Washington Post analyzed more than 400 artworks in the U.S. Capitol building, from the Crypt to the ceiling of the Capitol Rotunda, and found that nearly one-third honor enslavers or Confederates. Another six honor possible enslavers — people whose slaveholding status is in dispute.
Congress has made some efforts to address the legacy of slavery since the 2020 protests that followed the death of George Floyd. The 117th Congress — the most diverse in history — established Juneteenth as a national holiday. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had portraits of speakers who participated in the Confederacy removed. Florida replaced a Confederate statue representing the state with one honoring Mary McLeod Bethune, the first African American chosen for the National Statuary Hall Collection.
And just this month, Congress approved a bill to remove and replace a bust of Supreme Court justice and enslaver Roger B. Taney — infamous for the Dred Scott decision denying Black people citizenship — with one of Thurgood Marshall, the first African American justice.
But a House effort to remove statues honoring Confederates stalled in the Senate. One of those Confederate statues stands in front of the office of the House majority whip, currently occupied by Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), the first Black person to serve multiple terms in that role.
Clyburn and several other Black members of Congress did not respond to requests for comment about the art in the Capitol. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), a civil rights activist who has worked in the Capitol for 32 years, called the Confederate statues “very anachronistic.”
Just as governments and institutions across the country struggle with the complex and contradictory legacies of celebrated historical figures with troubling racial records, so too does any effort to catalogue the role of the Capitol artworks’ subjects in the institution of slavery. This analysis, for example, includes at least four enslavers — Benjamin Franklin, John Dickinson, Rufus King and Bartolomé de las Casas — who voluntarily freed the people they enslaved and publicly disavowed slavery while they were living. Other people, like Daniel Webster and Samuel Morse, were vocal defenders of slavery but did not themselves enslave people; artworks honoring them are not counted in The Post’s tally.
The Capitol Rotunda, at the heart of the building, is particularly replete with enslavers. More than two dozen artworks there depict enslavers, from statues on its marble floors and paintings on the walls to friezes and murals overhead. It also includes the only known depiction of a female enslaver in the building: Martha Washington, who inherited 84 enslaved people from her first husband.
Some of the artworks reflect the reality that most of the nation’s prominent founders were also enslavers; there are 17 depictions of George Washington, nine of Thomas Jefferson and five of James Madison. But there are also 15 depictions of Christopher Columbus, who never set foot in North America and enslaved Indigenous people in the Caribbean. The majority of the artworks honor lesser-known figures who were deeply involved in the African slave trade, the enslavement of Indigenous people, forced plantation labor and the war fought to preserve slavery. Two statues portray physicians who experimented on enslaved people.
None of the works are accompanied by any acknowledgment that their subjects enslaved people.
A total of 140 enslavers, 13 Confederates and six possible enslavers are depicted in 138 artworks in the Capitol. There is some overlap; most of the Confederates were also enslavers.
Since 2009, three sculptures and four paintings depicting Confederates have been removed from the Capitol; another, depicting the Confederate attorney Uriah Milton Rose, is slated for removal. The remaining Confederates honored are Alexander Stephens, Crawford W. Long, Edward Douglass White, James Zachariah George, Jefferson Davis, John Bell, John C. Breckinridge, John E. Kenna, John Tyler, Joseph Wheeler, Wade Hampton and Zebulon Vance.
Thirty-one of the depictions of enslavers and Confederates, plus another two depictions of possible enslavers, are part of the National Statuary Hall Collection, created in 1864. Each state can contribute two statues depicting notable deceased residents for display in the Capitol as part of the collection. A 2000 law allowed states to remove and replace statues with the approval of the state’s legislature and governor. Neither Congress nor the office of the Architect of the Capitol, which maintains the statues, has the power to remove them. (The collection is distinct from the Capitol’s National Statuary Hall room, though most — but not all — of the statues in the room are also part of the National Statuary Hall Collection.)
Twenty-two states have at least one statue depicting an enslaver or Confederate. Another two have statues depicting possible enslavers. For nine states, both of their statues honor men in these categories.
All 11 states that joined the Confederacy have at least one statue depicting an enslaver or Confederate. But the homages to enslavers are by no means restricted to these states: Except for New Hampshire, all of the original 13 states have statues depicting enslavers or possible enslavers.
Massachusetts, for example, is represented by John Winthrop, who is best known for proclaiming a “shining city on a hill” but who also enslaved at least three Pequot people and, as colonial governor, helped legalize the enslavement of Africans.
Both of New York’s statues honor enslavers. One is Declaration of Independence co-writer Robert R. Livingston, who came from a prominent slave-trading family and personally enslaved 15 people in 1790. He also owned brothels that housed Black women who may have been enslaved. The other is former vice president George Clinton, who served under Jefferson and Madison and enslaved at least eight people in his lifetime.
Even some states where slavery was never legal are represented in the Capitol by enslavers or possible enslavers. One of Michigan’s statues depicts Lewis Cass, an enslaver who was also involved in the Trail of Tears. (The state legislature voted this month to replace it.) Vermont, the first state to outlaw slavery in its constitution, sent a statue of Ethan Allen, whose brother and daughter both enslaved people illegally, and who had Black servants in his household. Historians have not been able to determine whether those servants were enslaved. California is represented by Junípero Serra, a Catholic missionary who some historians say enslaved Indigenous people in his missions, forcing them to work and punishing them with whippings if they tried to escape. Others deny that he was an enslaver and emphasize his work to improve the lives of Indigenous people.
Still, some of the most egregious defenders of slavery represent states that seceded in the Civil War, including Alabama, whose statue in front of the majority whip’s office depicts Joseph Wheeler, a Confederate cavalryman who in 1864 oversaw the massacre of Black Americans at Ebenezer Creek, in his Confederate uniform. Three Confederate statues greet tourists arriving at the Capitol Visitor Center, near a marker acknowledging that the building itself was constructed using enslaved labor. Throughout the building, there are just six artworks depicting enslaved or formerly enslaved people, including Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, and a handful of paintings that depict unnamed African American laborers who may have been enslaved.
The first Confederate statue installed in the Capitol provoked outrage, when Virginia chose to be represented by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee in 1909. The move was decried by Union veterans’ groups and Northern lawmakers; one introduced a bill to build a statue of abolitionist John Brown in Richmond as revenge.
But as Jim Crow and Lost Cause mythology took hold, more Confederate statues arrived in the 1920s. In 1931, when Mississippi sent two Confederate statues to the Capitol, the U.S. Army Band played at a ceremony the New York Times described as “emotional” and “full of sentiment for the lost cause.”
In 2011, Maryland legislators sought to replace the state’s statue of enslaver John Hanson with one of abolitionist Harriet Tubman. They had the backing of the National Organization for Women, but the measure stalled amid opposition from Hanson’s descendants and from senior state Democratic leaders, who cited Hanson’s largely forgotten role as a founding father and member of the Continental Congress. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) has repeatedly introduced a bill to install a Tubman statue separate from the states’ collection. (A statue of Rosa Parks came to the Capitol in 2013 in the same way; it sits in National Statuary Hall but is not part of the official National Statuary Hall Collection.) A spokeswoman for Maloney, who lost a primary this year, said it is unclear who, if anyone, will reintroduce the legislation in the next Congress.
A 2015 effort in California to replace the statue of Serra with one honoring astronaut Sally Ride was put on hold when Serra was made a Catholic saint. Then-Gov. Jerry Brown (D) declared that the Serra statue would remain in the Capitol “until the end of time.”
“I don’t believe he enslaved Indigenous people,” said Lucy Knopf, a 19-year-old California native attending Catholic University, while standing in National Statuary Hall on a recent tour of the Capitol. “I think it was more he was trying to help them. I don’t agree with getting rid of the statue.”
Nearby, a 23-year-old Black congressional staffer from Michigan stood between Confederate statues honoring Wheeler and Davis. “History is important, and it’s important to properly contextualize history,” said the staffer, who declined to be named because he did not have permission from his employer. “So to have these statues in a place like this — the halls of democracy — I personally don’t think they should be in rooms like this.” He supported his home state’s recent decision to replace the Cass statue.
Even successful replacement efforts can take years to execute. In 2019, Arkansas officials decided to remove both of the state’s statues, replacing them with civil rights activist Daisy Bates and country musician Johnny Cash. But that hasn’t happened yet: Its statues of Rose, the Confederate attorney, and white supremacist governor James Paul Clarke remain in the Capitol in the meantime.
In 2020, Virginia removed its statue of Robert E. Lee. A replacement statue of civil rights leader Barbara Johns has not been completed, so the National Statuary Hall Collection currently comprises only 99 statues.
Beyond the statuary collection, the Senate wing of the Capitol features busts of every vice president. Nine depict enslavers: Jefferson, Aaron Burr, John C. Calhoun, Martin Van Buren, Richard M. Johnson, John Tyler, William R. King, John C. Breckinridge and Andrew Johnson. Tyler and Breckinridge also joined the Confederacy.
On the House side, there are portraits of every House speaker. These include 12 paintings of enslavers. In 2020, Pelosi ordered four speaker portraits to be removed because they depicted men who participated in the Confederacy. But the portrait of speaker John Bell, a Tennessee enslaver who supported the Confederacy, still hangs. A spokesman for Pelosi said since Bell was not an active participant in the Confederacy, the House curator did not flag the portrait for removal.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who is likely to be House speaker in the next Congress, did not respond to questions about his plans for these artworks. In June 2021, McCarthy was one of 67 House Republicans to join House Democrats in voting for the removal of the Taney bust and all statues honoring people who “served voluntarily with the Confederate States of America.” That bill stalled in the Senate; a stripped-down version that would remove only the Taney bust passed this month and awaits the president’s signature.
When the Taney bust was first proposed in 1865, many lawmakers condemned the idea of honoring him because he had authored the Dred Scott decision. Sen. Charles Sumner (R-Mass.) said on the Senate floor that “the name of Taney is to be hooted down the page of history. Judgment is beginning now; and an emancipated country will fasten upon him the stigma which he deserves.”
Sumner was right — but he probably didn’t anticipate that it would take a century and a half.