Was the Washington Monument built by slaves? Spider-Man: Homecoming says yes.

Spider-Man: Homecoming Says the Washington Monument Was Built by Slaves. Was It?

Spider-Man: Homecoming Says the Washington Monument Was Built by Slaves. Was It?

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
July 11 2017 7:03 AM

Spider-Man: Homecoming Says the Washington Monument Was Built by Slaves. Was It?

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This part of the monument that Spidey is holding on to was not built by slaves.

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Spider-Man: Homecoming is very good, but it’s important to discuss the film’s glaring flaw. Sure, it gave us the opportunity to finally see a true teenage Peter Parker. Sure, we finally got to see Donald Glover in a Spider-Man movie. Sure, the movie uses Michael Keaton perfectly as a villain. Sure, seeing Spidey running through a golf course at night while being sprayed by sprinklers was one of the more fun Marvel moments in recent memory. But none of this can compensate for the scene where Zendaya’s character, Michelle, refuses to join her high-school peers inside of the Washington Monument because, she says, it was “built by slaves.” Her teacher, played by Martin Starr, assures her it’s not so and turns to a nearby guard for support, only for the guard to shrug and give him an expression that says, well, kinda.

Sorry, Michelle, but we don’t actually know that the Washington Monument was built by slaves. We only know that there’s a very good chance it was. It’s kind of like how we’re not definitely sure Chicken McNuggets are made of undesirable chicken parts, we’re only pretty sure, so we just go ahead and eat them because they’re delicious, you can get 10 pieces for a very good price, and this is America, dammit.

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You see, Michelle, it’s very simple. Around 1832, the Washington National Monument Society—whose members included John Marshall and James Madison—became responsible for raising money to create a monument to honor of our nation’s first president, who never did anything that could be considered morally repugnant and was a terrific man by all accounts. After a couple of years raising money in one-dollar increments—just like the Bernie Sanders campaign—the society held a contest for the monument’s design.

The winner of that contest was Robert Mills, a famous architect and Freemason who is also responsible for the design of other beautiful American structures like the Treasury Building and the General Post Office, which every D.C. resident now knows as that weird hotel across the street from the Spy Museum and that Shake Shack that never has any seats open. Are you following me, Michelle?

Because of funding problems that had hindered the project from the beginning, only the obelisk part of Mills’ design was constructed. What we now call the “first phase” of the monument’s construction began in 1848, prior to abolition. This first phase saw the construction of the first 150 feet or so of the monument and ended in 1854 when the Washington National Monument Society’s funding ran out. If—if—slave labor was used during the monument’s construction it would have been during this phase. To spell it out for you, Michelle, let’s turn to Jesse Holland, a respected historian, journalist, and author of the book Black Men Built the Capitol, who wrote in an email:

There has not been any clear evidence found to prove that slaves were used in the construction of the Washington Monument: no receipts, no log entries, no newspaper stories. We have all of those proving the use of slave construction on the U.S. Capitol and the White House. But we have yet to discover irrefutable evidence that slaves were used in the construction of the Washington Monument.
However, it would be astonishing if African American slaves were not involved, given that Washington, D.C. was a slave city and accustomed to the use of slave labor on major building projects around the city, including the clearing of trees for the National Mall and surrounding areas, the construction of federal buildings and the building of private residences around the capital.
Considering that the beginning of construction for the Washington Monument started before the beginning of the Civil War, that Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia allowed slavery, and that the city had a tradition of using stone from quarries that used enslaved workers, it would be more surprising if no slaves was used in the construction of the Washington Monument.
However, there has not been any documentation found that immediately proves that contention. So I would say that it would be easy to believe that slaves were used in the construction of the Washington Monument, but hard to prove.

There you go, Michelle. Mr. Holland was kind enough to spell it out for you. There’s no way we can be sure the Washington Monument was built by slaves, but everyone is pretty sure that they contributed. It’s not like this was the White House or the Capitol, both of which were definitely built with the use of slave labor.

Furthermore, Michelle, what if we had definitive evidence that the monument was built using slaves? Do we just tear down the Washington Monument? How will D.C. college students survive a drunken night out without their North Star to guide them home when they’re lost in Southeast? Maybe if you spent more time paying attention in class rather than being concerned with our nation’s original sin of slavery, you would have realized that your friend Peter Parker is Spider-Man.

Austin Elias-de Jesus is a Slate editorial intern.