Slavery in Construction Projects

The use of slavery in the Capitol’s construction was not unique.

Sketch of the State Capitol, 1870s
Sketch of the State Capitol, 1870s

During the first half of the nineteenth century, many construction projects, especially those taking place in the southern United States, utilized the labor of enslaved African Americans. These construction projects included the building of schools, universities, civic structures, and other public buildings. The labor of local enslaved people was often rented to these projects by their enslavers. A list from Curbed shows just a small sampling of some famous American landmarks that were constructed using the labor of enslaved people.

In North Carolina, construction sponsored by the state utilized the labor of enslaved people. Chartered in 1789, individuals working for the University of North Carolina erected several campus buildings during the 1820s. Records show that the project’s contractors and sub-contractors either engaged people they themselves enslaved on the project or “hired-out” enslaved people from nearby enslavers.

The “hiring out” system was common and referred to a system in which a hirer would temporarily lease an enslaved person from their enslaver.

The enslaver would usually receive payment for the hired-out work of their enslaved person. In some instances, enslavers empowered enslaved people, especially craftsmen and artisans, to hire out their own time – meaning, an enslaved person might get to keep some or all of the money they generated. With construction projects, enslaved people might get to keep some money their labor made or they might be forced to turn all earnings over to their enslaver. 

The hiring-out system made labor easily available for short-term projects like construction. Numerous records have shown enslaved people participating in the construction of campus buildings, especially Old East, Old West, the Old Chapel (Person Hall), the New Chapel (Gerrard Hall) and subsequent additions to these buildings. 

Notably, the White House and U.S. Capitol were also constructed using the labor of enslaved men. The White House Historical Association notes that “Stonemason Collen Williamson trained enslaved people on the spot at the government’s quarry at Aquia, Virginia. Enslaved people quarried and cut the rough stone that was later dressed and laid by Scottish masons to erect the walls of the President’s House.” The construction of the White House was comparable to that of the NC State Capitol: a large, public structure where locally-quarried stone was used and White stone masons were present.

Enslaved people constructed the United States Capitol over thirty years, from 1793 to 1826. Though we are unlikely to ever know the extent to which enslaved people were involved in this project, records for 385 payments made between 1795 and 1801 state that payment was made for “Negro hire” on the project, a common phrase likely indicating enslaved people.


Photo showing the Old Well and Old West building on UNC’s campus in Chapel Hill
This photo shows the Old Well and Old West building on UNC’s campus in Chapel Hill. Photo from the Albert Barden Collection, State Archives of North Carolina
Photo showing the construction of the U.S. Capitol Dome, between 1860 and 1863
Construction of the U.S. Capitol Dome, between 1860 and 1863, Library of Congress
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