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Remember slaves in our history books

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WASHINGTON — In this town, no occupied building can be higher than the U.S. Capitol. No overshadowing is allowed.

In the history of that great building, few persons stand taller — albeit, until recently, anonymously — than 400 completely forgotten laborers who helped bring it to reality, working from dawn to dusk in all kinds of weather, completing the most arduous, back-breaking tasks without a complaint.

When George Washington laid the cornerstone for the most important edifice in our land, he did not acknowledge these selfless workers who really had no standing in the democracy whose most lasting symbol they were striving to create. They were African Americans, and they were slaves.

Some 224 years after the signing of the document declaring us an independent people, an event that annually stirs the passion of every American no matter where they are at the time, an African American congressman says it is time to give some credit where credit is due, to give some historic perspective to how it came to be. He couldn't be more correct.

Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla., is in the process of establishing an exhibit dedicated to the role black workers proudly played in the great drama surrounding the establishment of a permanent seat of government in the fledgling nation.

More importantly, it is time for those who write our history books to recognize once and for all the contribution made by those whose destinies were utterly out of their control. In fact, it's about time to quit writing black history or white history and just write a history that includes us all.

Many of us never were taught in school about the importance of our black brethren to the freedom that we took for granted and for the privileges we enjoyed often at their expense.

Of course we learned about a few prominent African Americans. There was George Washington Carver, Crispus Attucks, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass and a handful of others. But most of us, particularly if we were from the mainly white Midwest, knew little about those blacks who went to war and died for us or helped provide our food and the fabric for our clothes and the bricks for our homes and had an impact on our lives in countless other ways.

Our knowledge of them was pretty much limited to "cotton field" pictures and a few paragraphs in our history books.

Now and then we were lucky enough to attend school with some African Americans. It gave us some understanding that their desires and aspirations were no different than ours.

We played ball together and even adjusted our lives now and then to include some of our black teammates in activities off the football field or basketball court. When we went to the movies we sat in the balcony because our black teammates were restricted to that section. But sadly, I suppose, we didn't question the unwritten "rules" that made us do that. We just accepted them as the way things were.

Perhaps subconsciously, we were assuaging our guilt over the obvious inequities. But we might not have been so quick to accept the second-class label for our black friends had we been provided an accurate picture of history, one that had not simply exposed us to the achievements of our own race without acknowledging that this truly was a society built by multicolored sacrifice.

So it is vital to the advancement of racial harmony in this nation that we continue to emphasize, as many schools now do, the importance of all of us to the success of this great experiment in freedom. Slavery was a despicable institution. But we should not ignore its history or the reasons for it even if it makes all of us, black and white, uncomfortable.

Moreover, we should never ignore the sizable contributions made by those who suffered under it and because of it, again black and white. That's what J.C. Watts is trying to do. A race that has been deliberately denied a standing in history is without legitimacy. It is not only unfair, it is a lie whose exposure as such is long overdue.

Dan K. Thomasson is the former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.