NEW YORK — Edward Hotaling, 75, 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 on Staten Island.
The cause was a heart attack, his son Greg said. Mr. Hotaling had lived in a nursing home since suffering injuries in an auto accident in 2007.
Mr. Hotaling was a television reporter at the NBC affiliate WRC-TV in Washington when he interviewed Snyder on Jan. 15, 1988, for a report commemorating the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Mr. Hotaling asked Snyder to assess racial progress in pro sports.
Snyder’s reply careered into his theory that blacks were better athletes 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, Mr. Hotaling found hundreds of payment stubs in Treasury archives detailing the work of black 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, since it confirmed a presumptive truth about life in the capital before slavery was abolished in 1865. But the report was news to many viewers, including members of Congress. Representatives John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat and a civil rights advocate, and J.C. Watts, an Oklahoma Republican, 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.
“What was striking’’ about Mr. Hotaling’s discovery, said Ira Berlin, a University of Maryland history professor and slavery expert, “was not that slaves were involved in building the Temple of Liberty,’’ as the Capitol is historically known, “but that Americans are continuously surprised by the gap between American ideals and realities.’’
Mr. Hotaling said he was less interested in accolades for his research than in disseminating information about the contributions of African-American slaves. “It was never included in the mainstream general history of America and not included in the textbooks that the kids read in school,’’ he said.
Mr. Hotaling’s interest in American slavery had a history of its own. In researching a book on 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.)
“Although millions of Americans know nothing about it,’’ Mr. Hotaling said in a 1999 interview with The Village Voice, “African-Americans were our first professional athletes.’’
Edward Clinton Hotaling was born in Saratoga Springs
After graduating from Syracuse University and earning a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota, Mr. Hotaling worked for The International Herald Tribune in Paris and covered the Middle East for CBS News before joining WRC-TV in 1977.