Obituary: Edward Hotaling / Shed light on overlooked black history

Oct. 16, 1937 - June 3, 2013

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Edward Hotaling, a television reporter whose question about racial progress ended the career of CBS sports commentator Jimmy "the Greek" Snyder in 1988, but who may have made a more lasting mark by documenting the use of slave labor in building the nation's Capitol, died June 3 in New York City. He was 75.

The cause was a heart attack, his son Greg said. He had lived in a nursing home since suffering serious injuries in an auto accident in 2007.

Mr. Hotaling (pronounced HO-tail-ing) was a television reporter at the NBC affiliate WRC-TV in Washington, D.C., when he interviewed Snyder on Jan. 15, 1988, for a report commemorating the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. Bumping into Snyder in a restaurant, Mr. Hotaling asked him to assess racial progress in professional sports.

Snyder's reply careered into his theory that blacks were better athletes than whites because their slave ancestors had been "bred to be that way" and that soon "there's not going to be anything left for the white people" in sports. The comment created a national stir and got him fired by CBS. He died in 1996.

Mr. Hotaling told interviewers afterward that though he was appalled by Snyder's remarks, he opposed his dismissal -- an opinion shared by many civil rights leaders at the time.

It was another anniversary that led Mr. Hotaling to a story of historic importance, if one with less hot-button appeal.

In 2000, while researching the 200th anniversary of the building of the White House and the Capitol for a news feature, Mr. Hotaling found hundreds of monthly payment stubs in Treasury Department archives detailing the work of African-American slave laborers in erecting both buildings. Of 650 workers involved in the projects between 1792 and 1800, 400 were slave carpenters, masons and quarry men whose owners received $5 a month for their work.

Many historians considered the discovery routine because it confirmed a presumptive truth about life in the capital before slavery was abolished in 1865. But the report was news to many of Mr. Hotaling's viewers, including several members of Congress. Reps. John Lewis, D-Ga., a longtime civil right advocate, and J.C. Watts, R-Okla., went on to establish a task force in 2002 to come up with ways to commemorate the slave builders.

In 2007, Congress named the grand space at the center of the new Capitol Visitor Center "Emancipation Hall." Since then, tour guides have told of the slaves who built the Capitol, including one skilled craftsman named Philip Reid, who in the early 1860s helped cast the bronze Statue of Freedom that sits atop the Capitol dome.

Mr. Hotaling's interest in American slavery had a history of its own. In researching a book about horse racing in his hometown -- "They're Off!: Horse Racing at Saratoga" (1995) -- he became intrigued by the little-known history of black jockeys and trainers. That led to a follow-up book, "The Great Black Jockeys: The Lives and Times of the Men Who Dominated America's First National Sport" (1999), an account of the slaves, former slaves and descendants of slaves who were the dominant figures in racing during the 18th and 19th centuries. (In the first Kentucky Derby, in 1875, 13 of the 15 jockeys were black men, many of them born slaves.)

Edward Clinton Hotaling was born in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., on Oct. 16, 1937.

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