As President Barack Obama took the oath of office upon a Bible used for Abraham Lincoln’s 1861 inauguration, you could almost hear the manacles fall away from the ghosts of our African-American past.

The nation’s 44th president and the first black to hold its highest office, Obama began his historic journey from a place freighted with symbols of slavery and segregation. Actions taken at the seat of federal government – including the creation of the state of Maine – perpetuated these practices for 175 years before ultimately moving to end them.

Obama’s inaugural speech only alluded to this dark history. He spoke about those who “endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth,” how “we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation,” and his father, who “less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant.”

He did not have to say more. The symbols surrounding him – the White House, Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, Mall, Capitol and Supreme Court – spoke volumes.

The District of Columbia was home to thousands of slaves from the time of its construction in the 1790s, until slavery was abolished there by Lincoln on April 16, 1862.

The Capitol, White House and other early government buildings were built largely with slave labor. The slave trade flourished in the District until 1850, and slave pens were located near the Washington Mall and Lafayette Square, in sight of the White House. Slaves were temporarily confined in a jail that once stood on the site of the present Supreme Court building.

Twelve of the first 18 presidents, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, owned slaves. Eight presidents owned slaves while in office. Washington, a Virginia plantation owner, had over 300.

In the four decades leading up to the Civil War, legislative bargains between North and South were periodically struck in Congress in an effort to protect slavery while preventing the explosive issue of slave expansion into Western territories from ripping the country apart.

The first such deal, the 1820 Missouri Compromise, led to statehood for Maine. Maine was carved out of Massachusetts and admitted, along with Missouri, as a new state in order to preserve the political equilibrium between non-slave and slave state representation in the Senate. Slavery was also excluded from the territories carved out of the Louisiana Purchase north of the 36th parallel and permitted south of it.

When the Missouri Compromise was repealed in 1854, letting settlers of new territories decide whether to allow slavery, political divisions became acrimonious, national parties splintered, violence broke out and the Union ultimately disintegrated.

Lincoln’s election in 1860 brought matters to a head. Seven Southern states seceded from the Union to form the Confederacy, and, on April l2, 1861, fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, starting the bloody four-year Civil War.

Over the next century, the White House, Congress and the Supreme Court became a hothouse of controversy over what to do about Afro-Americans, who were, most often, not consulted about their own destiny.

It was here, after, after months of agonizing, that Lincoln, on Sept. 22, 1862, issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in all areas under Confederate control. It was here between 1865 and 1877 that Congressional Republicans conceived a Reconstruction program to punish the Confederacy and elevate its four million slaves to free citizens guaranteed the right to vote, hold public office, own land and conduct business.

It was here in the late 19th-century that Southern Democrats used their resurgent congressional power to roll back Reconstruction, freeing Dixie to segregate, disenfranchise and economically exploit blacks. It was here in 1896 that the nation’s highest court declared segregation as constitutional.

It was here in the 1950s and 60s that an increasingly vocal and politically active Civil Rights Movement clamored to right the injustices of segregation and discrimination, culminating in Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 “I have a dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial, and the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965.

The past 40 years have seen significant, if halting, progress towards political, social and economic racial equality, with Obama’s election the ultimate symbol of that progress.

Small wonder, then, that so many African-Americans watched last Tuesday’s inauguration with tears in their eyes. The limestone and marble reminders of slavery and segregation had finally been transformed into monuments of freedom.

Elliott L. Epstein, a local attorney, is founder and board president of Museum L-A and an adjunct history instructor at Central Maine Community College. He can be reached at [email protected]


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