When Wes Moore takes the oath of office on Jan. 18, he might point to the building behind him and talk about how its history frames his place as Maryland’s first Black governor.

Moore will go to work in the nation’s oldest state capitol still in use, a symbol of change since enslaved and free Black laborers almost certainly constructed the building more than two centuries ago. He’s talked about the milestone before.

“It’s not lost that we’re literally talking about, in general, having an inauguration in a building that was built by the hands of those who were enslaved, walking distance away from a dock that was one of the largest slave ports in the history of America,” he said during a September campaign stop in Annapolis.

Construction on the Maryland State House in Annapolis began in 1772 and it's the oldest state capital building in the nation still in continuous legislative use. The building's dome is undergoing a rehabilitation project.
Construction on the Maryland State House in Annapolis began in 1772 and it’s the oldest state capital building in the nation still in continuous legislative use. The building’s dome is undergoing a rehabilitation project. (PAMELA WOOD/The Baltimore Banner)

The applause that greeted his comments reflected the widespread belief in Annapolis that the State House was built by people who were not free. Yet there are no historical markers explaining the role of slavery in creating Maryland’s 252-year-old seat of government. For the professional historians and archivists, the gap between belief and proof has been very hard to close.

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“There’s possibility. There are definitive facts. In this situation, there’s probable cause to believe that ... a combination of free and enslaved blacks and also indentured servants worked on the construction of the State House and its annex through the years,” said Chris Haley, who leads the study of slavery’s legacy at the Maryland State Archives.

Once he takes office, Moore has the power to change that narrative. He hasn’t said if he will use it.

The men credited with building the State House and its soaring dome, as well as the annexes, and also those completing its many renovations weren’t the ones wielding hammers and laying brick every day on that hill in Annapolis overlooking the harbor. No one has found records identifying the craftsmen who cut the wooden framing and put them together without nails, installed the windows or applied the original coats of straw-yellow paint.

The story of labor, particularly by Black men and women, wasn’t considered worth recording for much of Maryland’s history. The builders of monumental structures such as the State House were, Haley said, slave owners. But the project was very likely worked on by enslaved people who would have been carpenters, masons or glaziers — valued for the revenue they could generate, if not as human beings.

Haley and others at the archives have worked for years to flesh out the identities of individuals through records that include names. What was a runaway enslaved person’s age, eye color and physical particulars? Was he a carpenter? Was she a cook?

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“We try to take it from the inside out —the person themselves because of the nature of the beast, which is slavery and ownership,” Haley said. “For this situation, we have to look at it from the outside in. Who are the owners of enslaved people? By identifying who they are, we then look to see who were the people that they enslaved. What did they do?”

One day, the effort might create a biography of individuals, free and enslaved, who worked on the State House. So far, it hasn’t supported full-scale storytelling or even revealed the names of all those who carved their names in the wooden beams that hold up the dome.

Workmen who built the Maryland State House dome carved their initials into the wooden beams. Who they were, in many cases, remains a mystery. (Courtesy of the Maryland State Archives)

“Is there a plaque at the State House that says something in general about the use of enslaved labor? No,” said Elaine Rice Bachmann, who as state archivist serves as secretary of the State House Trust. The trust makes decisions about the preservation and interpretation of the National Historic Landmark.

There has been progress. The era when white men were the only heroes at the center of Maryland history has ended. Labels identify anyone in artworks who might have been enslaved. There is the newspaper notice of a slave ship’s arrival in Annapolis on Oct. 1, 1767, the historic touchstone that Haley’s uncle, the late Alex Haley, wove into his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Roots: The Saga of An American Family.”

“We’re always trying to rectify the imbalance represented in the state’s art collection in the State House because of the fact that the state art collection really originated as being portraiture of elected government officials in Maryland. For 200 years, that’s white men,” Bachmann said.

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Changes at the State House reflect a wider revolution in Maryland’s story. When I learned state history in Mrs. Sturgis’ seventh grade social studies class at Berlin Middle School, Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad were mentioned.

But she said nothing about this being a local story — 70 miles from the classroom where I soaked up lessons on Maryland as a slave state that nevertheless fought for the Union. And I’m still learning about how slavery was just as violent and cruel here as it was in the Confederacy. Tubman called it “the next thing to hell.”

Janice Hayes-Williams, a leader in efforts to preserve Black history, got her lessons in Annapolis schools while I was getting mine on the Eastern Shore. Much of what she shares today didn’t come from those classes, but from her family — the wide network that the word encompasses in a small place like Annapolis — and her own diligent research.

She wonders if Black families living on Annapolis’ Clay Street through slavery, Jim Crow and even today are descendants of the men who made bricks for the State House and other architectural masterpieces dotting the streets of the state capital. Its name, she believes, even originates in its history as a brickyard.

Hayes-Williams has seen a shift, with schools incorporating resources like hers to tell a story that started before slavery and continues today. The website for her guided tours is listed as a tool for teachers and students. Public and private school students were present in November for the dedication of a UNESCO plaque marking Annapolis as a slave port.

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Eve Case, coordinator of social studies for Anne Arundel County Public Schools, said the state has changed its curriculum in recent years to ensure that a wider interpretation of Maryland history is taught in several grades, with opportunities for individual schools and teachers to incorporate local resources.

Next year, county schools will add an 11th grade class to give students wider freedom to explore local topics such as the 21,116 Africans that researchers believe were sold in Annapolis, the one in five who didn’t survive the middle passage, segregated education, or enslaved labor at the State House.

“We try to build bridges for teachers within the curriculum, you know, what is the local field trip that you could take? Would it be a tour with Janice or would it be a visit to the Annapolis story museum with Historic Annapolis,” Case said. “Some of that is going to depend upon the experience of the school and the ability of the school to take those trips and to make those connections with the community. But that’s the mission.”

When Moore becomes governor, the Democrat will also take over as chair of the State House Trust, which controls how the story of the State House is told.

Previous governors, House speakers and Senate presidents have implemented their own priorities: renovating the spot where George Washington resigned his commission in 1783 and returned to civilian life, removing a statue honoring the author of a seminal racist Supreme Court decision, adding statues of Tubman and Frederick Douglass, and taking down a plaque honoring the Confederacy.

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“If we can capture the interest of Gov.-elect Moore,” Bachmann said, “if there’s a way to engage him in the importance of interpreting and researching the State House, and the importance of the archives, I will welcome that.”