Slaves, The Smithsonian, and Brownstone

Just came across a fascinating article in the Washington Post about the building of the Smithsonian Castle. The article is about recently published research by Mark Auslander, an anthropologist at Central Washington University. His research appeared in the journal Southern Spaces. Auslander cites records from the Seneca Quarry in Virginia, the source of the Smithsonian’s building material. Quarry owner John Parke Custis Peter was the great grandson of Martha Curtis Washington, President Washington’s wife. In 1840, Peter owned 23 slaves, several of whom had been owned by Martha Washington. Auslander writes that “it seems likely that a number of the adult men…worked in the Seneca quarry” that provided the sandstone blocks for the Smithsonian. Ironically, as Auslander points out, the stone was known as “freestone.”

Auslander’s article is a fascinating contribution to our understanding of slavery and “enslaved African Americans worked on the construction of many buildings in antebellum Washington, D.C., including the U.S. Capitol and the White House, rarely receiving any monetary compensation.”

And for those with a geologic bent, here’s a little information on the Seneca sandstone. This comes from a post of mine from January 26, 2009, about the building stone of Washington D.C. The quarries are located along the Potomac River, near Seneca, Maryland, 20 miles northwest of Washington.  Like the brownstones of Connecticut, the Seneca sandstone formed in massive rift basins that opened 200 million years ago during the breakup of Pangaea.  The Smithsonian Castle completed in 1855, uses this brownstone, which has weathered to dark red from its original lilac gray.  I recently learned from Through the Sandglass of a great Mark Twain quote about said stone.  In a letter published in the March 7, 1868 Territorial Enterprise, he wrote of the “poor, decrepit, bald-headed, played-out, antediluvian Old Red Sandstone formation which they call the Smithsonian Institute.”

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