By utilizing primary and secondary source material, this essay attempts to examine both the use of slavery during the construction of the Tennessee State Capitol and the lives of the slaves involved. Though written histories on the Capitol agree that slavery was used at the construction site, no further details are given. The goal of this essay is to bring to light the full story of the group of slaves that were involved in the construction.
In the spring of 1846, fifteen slaves, all men, were loaned to the state government by A.G. Payne, a Nashville stone mason. For nearly a year they carved out the Capitol’s cellar, their skilled labor worth nearly twice as much as the unskilled labor of free men. These slaves broke through tons of limestone rock, carting it away after digging.
When construction required skilled stonemasons, the slaves returned to their master’s properties. For fourteen years up until Payne’s death, they worked at both a farm and brick factory, the monotony briefly punctuated by being hired out. Due to debts incurred by Payne just before his death, the slaves were to be sold. The Civil War imminent, the slaves remained with Payne’s widow until their emancipation.
After emancipation, the records on all but three of the men stop completely. Out of the three remaining men, the children of one were prospering. They had been taught to read. The government their father had helped physically build was finally working for their interests.