Congress Slaves 400th Anniversary

Actress Alfre Woodard speaks at Tuesday’s ceremony to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first arrival of enslaved African people in America. Emancipation Hall, where the event was held, was named to recognize the enslaved laborers who helped construct the U.S. Capitol.

WASHINGTON — Actress Alfre Woodard invoked the words of poet Maya Angelou while speaking at a ceremony Tuesday commemorating the terrible legacy of slavery in America.

“Leaving behind nights of terror and fear, I rise,” Woodard quoted. “Into a daybreak that is wondrously clear, I rise. Bringing the gifts my ancestors gave, I am the dream and the hope of the slave. I rise. I rise. I rise.”

Listening in the audience, Black Men United founder Willie Hamilton was moved to tears. The Omaha activist attended the ceremony alongside 2nd District Rep. Don Bacon.

“When you’re in this battle of trying to bring about change you get discouraged, so you need to have events like this to give you the energy to be able to continue the fight,” Hamilton said. “And I needed this.”

The Congressional Black Caucus presented Tuesday’s ceremony in the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center’s Emancipation Hall — so named to recognize the enslaved laborers who helped construct the building.

Sign up for The World-Herald's afternoon updates

Receive a summary of the day’s popular and trending stories from

The commemoration featured performances by Howard University singers, as well as remarks by top congressional leaders and others. Speakers talked about the need to recognize and address the sins of the past, and seek ways to make amends.

Bacon praised Hamilton for providing him with insights into the generational impact of slavery and racial discrimination.

Their discussions helped prompt Bacon to back legislation setting up various commemorations of the 400th anniversary of the first-recorded arrival of slaves from Africa.

And Bacon invited Hamilton to join him at Tuesday’s event.

Hamilton said he listened to the speakers and reflected on the terrible conditions of the past. He said he couldn’t imagine his own children living in such circumstances.

“That’s why I’m so compelled to be an activist, to be that voice, to speak out when I see the injustices that are taking place,” he said.

Bacon said he and Hamilton differ on a variety of specific policy proposals — including direct reparations for slavery. But they agree on the need to address racial inequality across areas such as school performance, household incomes and incarceration rates.

“We’ve got to start from that,” Bacon said. “There is inequality, and it’s not right.”