About the National Archives

Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University Conference

Welcome Remarks
Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University Conference
March 15, 2017
McGowan Theater

Good morning and welcome to the National Archives!

John Russell Pope designed this building as a “temple to American History.” He believed only a monumental building in his beloved neoclassical style could appropriately showcase the most treasured documents of our democracy. He made the National Archives Building taller than the neighboring structures, surrounded it with a moat, and set it at an angle to emphasize the importance of this building to the American people. He wanted everyone to know that records matter.

In his construction of this building, Pope designed the Rotunda as a shrine to our most sacred documents, the Charters of Freedom (the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights). Each year more than one million visitors come here to see the pen strokes of our Founding Fathers. These hallowed documents contain the words that inspired a revolution, set up our government, and laid out our rights as U.S. citizens.

We opened our doors in 1935 with a mission to collect, protect, and preserve the records of the U.S. Government. And, most importantly, to make the records available so that the American public can hold its government accountable and learn from our past. We are the final destination of the most important records of the United States Government — that two to three percent deemed by departments and agencies to be important enough for permanent preservation here.

Today that collection translates into over 13 billion sheets of paper, 43 million photographs, miles and miles of video and film, and more than 5 billion electronic records—the fastest growing record form. These records include Oaths of Allegiance signed by George Washington and his troops at Valley Forge, the Louisiana Purchase signed by Bonaparte, the check for 7.2m dollars with which we purchased Alaska, the Civil Rights Act, as well as the Tweets that are being created by the White House as I am speaking right now. In this building, we also hold the 27 amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Your conference is focused on three of them from the Civil War era: the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments.

Following the Civil War, Congress proposed three amendments to the states as part of its Reconstruction program to extend liberties and rights to blacks including citizenship.

The first one was the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery. When President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, he understood that his executive order could be overturned, and that a constitutional amendment was therefore needed to ensure freedom. Lincoln took an active role in pushing the amendment through the House and Senate and Congress passed it in January 1865. It was submitted to state legislatures on February 1, 1865, and ratified 10 months later on December 6, 1865.

The 14th Amendment defined citizens as “all persons born or naturalized in the United States.” It promised “equal protection under the laws” to all citizens, and ultimately extended the rights and liberties of the Bill of Rights. The amendment prohibited former Confederate states from repaying war debts and compensating former slave owners for the emancipation of their slaves. Congress required former Confederate states to ratify the 14th Amendment as a condition of regaining representation in Congress. It passed Congress on June 13, 1866, and the states ratified it on July 9, 1868.

And the 15th Amendment gave black males the right to vote. It passed Congress on February 26, 1869, and although it was ratified on February 3, 1870, it took almost a century and the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, before most African Americans were registered to vote in the South.

These three amendments gave former slaves hope for their immediate future. But in reality, it was the beginning of a long struggle for equality for African Americans...

Thanks for coming to the National Archives today. I hope you enjoy the rest of your conference.