Meet the Unlikely Leader of the Push for a National Slave Memorial

Enslaved Africans helped build the White House and other historic buildings in Washington, D.C., but there’s still no monument recognizing their work.

Craig Nessan. (Photo: TheOnline.com)

Aug 1, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Britni Danielle is a regular contributor to TakePart. She writes on a variety of subjects for Clutch, Ebony, Jet, and others.

As the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., houses nearly a dozen monuments honoring presidents, wars, and our country’s biggest heroes. But something is missing: a proper acknowledgement of those who constructed many of the district’s historic structures—enslaved Africans in America. Now a new petition by Craig Nessan, academic dean and professor of contextual theology at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, has reignited interest in a National Slave Memorial.

As the petition states, Nessan hopes a National Slave Memorial will “contribute to a fuller measure of repentance and healing which is sorely needed in our country in relation to the legacy of slavery.”

On the surface, Nessan seems an unlikely champion for this cause. He’s white, and his life’s work has been religion, not race. But he says his race gives him an advantage when it comes to advocating for the memorial.

“As a white man I have a moral obligation to use my privilege to speak out in solidarity with those whose destiny continues to be negatively affected by racism, which represents the ongoing manifestation of the slavery legacy,” he says. “When it comes to the issue of slavery and its aftermath, the humanity of all of us is at stake.”

Nessan’s petition is not the first attempt to spearhead such a monument. In 2003, the National Slave Memorial Act, H.R. 196, was presented in Congress. The bill would have authorized the National Foundation for African American Heritage to “create a memorial to slavery to: (1) acknowledge the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the United States and the 13 American colonies; and (2) honor the nameless and forgotten men, women, and children who have gone unrecognized for their undeniable and weighty U.S. contribution.”

The bill was not enacted, and Congress has failed to take up similar legislation in the years since.

Although the National Museum of African American History and Culture is under construction in Washington, D.C., Nessan believes a separate memorial honoring the enslaved Americans who built our nation’s capital deserves to stand along monuments dedicated to President Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., and the wars U.S. soldiers have fought in.

Constructing a shrine honoring those who helped build the foundation of America seems like a no-brainer, but Nessan says our country has yet to reckon with this horrific period in its history.

“The teaching of the history of the United States continues to feature the narrative of ‘manifest destiny,’ ” he says. “This myth favors American exceptionalism whereby we focus on the reality of the crimes of others while failing to reckon with our own history of genocide: against Native American indigenous people and against the African people who were mercilessly thrust into bondage through the transatlantic slave trade.”

With the popularity of the film 12 Years a Slave and the recent debate over reparations making its way into the media, Nessan argues that now is the time to finally acknowledge those who had their lives stolen so America could be great. “Perhaps one concrete expression of reparations could be the financing of this National Slave Memorial,” he says.

Although he has also received his first piece of hate mail as a result of his advocacy of this issue, Nessan is pressing ahead, and the petition is picking up steam. After presenting it to the faculty and students of Wartburg Theological Seminary, he also received the approval of James Cone, the founder of black liberation theology in the United States. As of this writing, nearly 1,300 people have signed the petition.

In several speeches First Lady Michelle Obama has highlighted the progress America has made by reminding audiences that she, an African American woman, lives in a house that was built by slaves.

“The house my family has the privilege of living in—that house was built in part by slaves,” she said in a 2012 speech marking the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. “But today, the beauty is children walk through that house and pass by that photo and they think nothing of it. They have grown up taking for granted that an African American can be president of the United States of America.”

Obama is right. Most people look at the White House and its occupants and marvel at how far we’ve come as a nation. But that progress came at a price, and the enslaved men and women who helped to transform America from a struggling British colony into the world’s most powerful nation deserve to be recognized.