2023 Shortlist

More than 1,800 congressmen once enslaved Black people. This is who they were, and how they shaped the nation.

Entry type: Single project

Country/area: United States

Publishing organisation: The Washington Post

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 2022-01-10

Language: English

Authors: Julie Z. Weil, Adrián Blanco Ramos, Leo Dominguez.

Editing by Lynda Robinson and Debbi Wilgoren. Graphics editing by Kevin Uhrmacher. Data editing by Meghan Hoyer. Design editing by Matthew Callahan and Brian Gross. Copy editing by Anne Kenderdine and Laura Michalski. Photo editing by Mark Miller. Reader submissions managed by Teddy Amenabar.


Julie Z. Weil reports on taxes. She has worked at The Post since 2013, including four years covering religion in America and two covering local government in D.C.

Adrián Blanco Ramos is a graphics reporter at The Washington Post. He previously worked as a data journalist at Spanish newspaper El Confidencial where he participated in the ICIJ’s Paradise Papers investigation.

Leo Dominguez. is a developer, designer, and photographer based in Brooklyn, NY. He is currently a graphics/multimedia editor at the New York Times.

Project description:

More than 1,800 people who served in the U.S. Congress in the 18th, 19th and even 20th centuries owned human beings at some point in their lives, according to a Washington Post investigation. The Washington Post has compiled [the first database of slaveholding members of Congress](https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/interactive/2022/congress-slaveowners-names-list/) by examining thousands of pages of census records and historical documents.

Impact reached:

[The Post’s list of enslavers in Congress investigation](https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/interactive/2022/congress-slaveowners-names-list/) is the first of its kind. In the process. This project uncoveres facts that alter the way many historical figures have been depicted. The Post’s work clarifies the record on many men whose relationship to slavery was previously hidden to the public, like Sen. Rufus King, who signed the Constitution and ran for president. Someone who walked past the plaque honoring him in New York City might have searched for him online and found the Wikipedia article extolling his anti-slavery activism. Before The Post’s project, they would not have found any mention of the fact that he once enslaved someone, too.

The Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress, which is the country’s official source of information on every person who has ever served in Congress, makes almost no mention of slavery. The Post’s journalism provides a much-needed comprehensive reference.

This story has been strengthened by a unique level of reader involvement. Upon publication of the initial database and analysis, The Post asked readers to help research other possible slaveholders in Congress, eliciting hundreds of responses. Readers sent in remarkable documents: an enslaved grandmother’s oral history, a great-great-grandfather’s letter from a Civil War battlefield, newspaper clips showing congressmen seeking the return of escaped enslaved people and handwritten birth certificates showing babies born enslaved.

Techniques/technologies used:

Journalists from every department of The Washington Post gathered to turn the resulting list of more than 1,800 slaveholders in Congress into a searchable public database and a series of richly designed articles exploring the ways Congress’s investment in slavery resonates today.

The newsroom-wide effort had more than 40 contributors: from copy editors who checked listings for all 1,875 congressmen in the database, finding and fixing wrinkles in the historical dataset along the way.

The Washington Post built a customized searchable database unique to this project to allow readers to explore the data on their own. The database is one of the largest The Washington Post has ever built and published. Its construction was a painstaking effort, calling for hours of work to combine and check spotty pre-existing datasets on members of Congress and the votes they cast. Technoliges such as R, JavaScript and React were used to process and render the data.

The Washington Post also illustrated this data in creative and compelling ways, including an interactive timeline showing how the share of slaveholders in Congress changed in response to historical events, and a richly detailed map illustrating the trends in all 40 states that sent slaveholders to Congress. The visuals were built using JavaScript’s library d3.js, Adobe Illustrator and Adobe Photoshop.

Context about the project:

When D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser proposed renaming city buildings because they honored racists, Washington Post reporter Julie Zauzmer Weil scrutinized the list, finding several congressmen who were enslavers. But when she Googled: “members of Congress who were slaveowners,” she discovered there was no list. So she set out to create one – and to explore the impact those enslavers had on America’s laws in pursuit of their own wealth and self-interest.

The new availability of factual information on slaveholders in Congress serves the public in many ways as America continues to grapple with how it understands and teaches its history.

Washington Post readers have used the database to learn about their own ancestors. They have looked up the namesakes of their towns’ schools and parks, providing an easy-to-use source of factual information to give context to the ongoing debates in communities across the country about whether to rename public institutions that honor slaveholders. The Post’s richly designed and intensively researched tour of the art that depicts historical figures inside the U.S. Capitol also contributes to important public debate about who the country honors.

To share this resource with students, The Post commissioned a curriculum guide available to teachers. The Zinn Education Project also promoted the project, leading to invitations for reporter Julie Z. Weil to speak with students at a wide variety of schools.

The database is simple enough to serve people of all ages in becoming better-informed participants in one of the most serious conversations in America today: the dialogue about our past and how it shapes our present.

What can other journalists learn from this project?

While much has been written in recent years about the systemic and long-lasting effects of slavery, other publications have not explored the relationship between lawmakers’ own economic interests, the laws they passed, and the ramifications of those laws. This database allows journalists and historians alike to explore that crucial aspect of the American story in a way that was previously inaccessible.

The Washington Post took the unusual step of making the entire dataset from this project publicly accessible on [Github](https://github.com/washingtonpost/data-congress-slaveowners). The freely available data offers a brand-new tool useful for many forms of analysis. For instance, a reporter or a historian writing about any vote in Congress can now use this data to analyze how slaveholders and non-slaveholders voted, providing a valuable new lens that will further scholarship on American history. Library Journal named the project one of the “Best Free Resources” of the year.

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