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PolitiFact Florida: Did slaves help build the Old Capitol building in Tallahassee?

By Allison Graves
Florida's Old and New Capitol can be seen from North Monroe Street in Tallahassee. (SCOTT KEELER | Times)

Rep. Kionne McGhee, D-Miami, offered an emotional speech about the role slavery played in Florida’s history as the Florida House prepared to vote on a slavery memorial at the Capitol.

McGhee, the bill’s sponsor, referred to a mural in the House chamber that depicts a slave woman holding a bushel of cotton near Andrew Jackson, the state’s military governor who would later become president.

"Because her lips were sealed, I will attempt to do justice," McGhee said. "You see, if she were able to talk on this day, she would tell us that in 1824, the slaves from Gadsden (County) came here, on this capitol complex some 200 yards away to clear the field."

"She would also tell us that just behind us, there were slaves in 1845 who helped construct and build the Old Capitol, as we call it, that’s what she would tell us," McGhee said.

The Florida House voted unanimously for HB 67, the companion of which has not yet been considered by the full Senate. If approved, the slave memorial would join other Capitol Complex monuments honoring fallen police officers, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Civil War soldiers from Leon County.

We wanted to take a look at McGhee’s claim that enslaved people helped build the "Old Capitol."

We found very little documentation about enslaved people building the Old Capitol, but history experts said it was very likely they helped build it, given the large role slaves played in Florida at the time.

McGhee’s team said the claim can be found in The Old Capitol: The Florida Center of Political History and Governance, an informational pamphlet compiled by Museum of Florida History staff to accompany the opening of a new exhibit.

The booklet said that the Old Capitol was "built in part" by enslaved people, but does not say anything else about its construction.

Florida commissioners picked Tallahassee as the capital in 1824, between two existing governmental centers — Pensacola and St. Augustine. The building that came to be known as the "Old Capitol" was completed in 1845, just before Florida was admitted as the 27th state.

The Florida Capitol Complex we know today includes the Old Capitol, plus House and Senate office buildings, and the 22-story building sometimes called the "New Capitol."

We asked the Florida Historic Capitol Museum, the Museum of Florida History and the Florida Department of State for additional information about the pamphlet McGhee cited, but came up empty-handed.

The Florida Historic Capitol Museum has a web page dedicated to the Old Capitol, but it does not mention anything about slave labor. (Rachel Porter, the director of research and programming at the museum, collected the information for McGhee’s claim.)

Every expert we spoke to said slave labor was integral to every aspect of Florida in the 19th century.

However, specific records about slaves’ contributions often went unrecorded, as slave owners rarely disclosed the extent of their labor.

"The fact that there is only a cursory mention of enslaved Africans building the Capitol is not unusual," said Larry Rivers, a distinguished history professor at Florida A&M University. "Enslaved Africans were regarded, like in other antebellum southern states, as objects to be simply worked until they died."

According to Census information from 1840, Richard A. Shine, the supervising architect and primary contractor for building the Old Capitol, was listed as a slave owner. Andrew Frank, associate history professor at Florida State University, said Shine was known to have used slaves on other projects in Tallahassee or to have hired out some of them as manual or skilled laborers.

Frank added that Shine’s son, Richard Shine Jr., later described himself as an "auctioneer" or slave trader.

"They, like most residents in what was known as Middle Florida, were deeply invested (financially and socially) in slavery," he said.

Edward E. Baptist, a history professor at Cornell University who has written a book about slavery in Florida, said almost every building in pre-1865 Tallahassee was built at least in part with slave labor.

"It would in fact be shocking if the Old Capitol was not built with enslaved labor," Baptist said. "Artisans like white carpenters and masons owned slave laborers and craftsmen."

So, African-American slaves were part of almost every facet of Florida life in the 19th century. Historians said they did all possible work in Florida, which would have included the building McGhee referenced.

However, we were unable to find conclusive documentation about the construction of the Capitol building. Without that certainty, we rate this claim Mostly True.

Read more rulings at PolitiFact.com/florida.