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With Capitol statue of Frederick Douglass, D.C. gets some respect

  • McClatchy Newspapers
  • Published Monday, Nov. 19, 2012, at 7:17 a.m.

WASHINGTON — The towering statue of abolitionist Frederick Douglass that’s standing in the atrium of a Washington government office building has been a symbol-in-waiting — until now.

Congress approved and the president signed a bill in September that directs the move of the 19th century icon’s image to the Capitol’s Emancipation Hall, where it will be one of only three African-American statues in the complex.

It will be the first time that a statue in the Capitol will represent the District of Columbia, which is excluded from the Capitol’s Statuary Hall collection because it isn’t a state. The 1864 law that created the hall entitles every state to display two statues of distinguished residents who are deceased, at the states’ cost.

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., said that what might seem like a “little thing” was an important step. “For us, it’s a great triumph,” said Norton, who represents the city in the House of Representatives but has limited voting privileges. “It means a great deal to the residents.”

The District of Columbia has long been struggling with Congress for recognition. Lawmakers have thwarted its efforts to achieve statehood. That helps explain why the motto on the city’s license plate is a pointed “Taxation Without Representation.”

The city was created as the federal capital in 1791 with land donated by Maryland and Virginia. Congress continues to oversee the city’s budget. Residents didn’t win the right to vote in the presidential election until 1961, with ratification of the 23rd Amendment to the Constitution, and the right to elect a mayor and city council until the 1970s.

It still has a muted voice on Capitol Hill. Norton, for instance, can cast votes only in committees, not on the House floor.

So city leaders saw congressional approval of even one statue as a tremendous victory.

“We’re delighted that the president has signed the legislation, and are proud that our statue of Frederick Douglass will finally have a place in the Capitol,” Washington Mayor Vincent Gray said recently. “While we’re thankful for this victory, our larger quest to secure the same rights that our fellow citizens across the country enjoy will continue.”

The statues for each state that line the Capitol’s corridors are powerful symbols. They embody the states’ history and progress, and the pride in the notable women and men whom they claim as their own.

They’re also subject to the changing times. Several states are switching them out now under a 2000 law that permits substituting more contemporary and diverse figures.

California has replaced a statue of a Civil War-era minister with one of President Ronald Reagan, the 40th commander in chief, and Missouri is moving to sub in President Harry Truman.

Arizona is in the process of switching to Sen. Barry Goldwater, a Republican icon of the 1960s; Ohio wants to add inventor Thomas Edison; and Iowa is installing a likeness of agronomist Norman Borlaug, the father of the “green revolution.”

A group called EVE, for Equal Visibility Everywhere, is trying to get states to replace obscure male figures with statues of prominent women. There are now nine female statues, after Alabama in 2009 installed a child statue of Helen Keller, the legendary author and political activist who was blind, deaf and mute.

Kansas is ready to replace one of its statues with aviator Amelia Earhart, and Maryland is considering civil rights pioneer Harriet Tubman.

“Symbolism,” Norton said. “It’s powerful.”

And a matter of respect. Washington was so intent on getting some on Capitol Hill that the city decided to put pressure on Congress by having its hoped-for congressional symbol ready before approval even was granted.

After a selection process, the city commissioned two statues in 2006 — of Douglass and of the city’s architect, Pierre Charles L’Enfant — instead of going through the usual years-long procedure of getting a state legislature (in Washington’s case, the city council) and then Congress to sign off before an artist is chosen.

But the real oomph behind the bill getting through had little to do with Washington and more to do with the power of Douglass as a symbol, the up-from-slavery orator who was an author, city official, political activist and confidant of President Abraham Lincoln.

“Frederick Douglass was one of the most influential orators and writers of the 19th century, an advocate for abolitionism, women’s suffrage and the equality of all people,” said Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., the majority whip and a co-sponsor of the effort to install the Douglass statue.

Speaking on the Senate floor, Durbin said the statue would recognize Douglass’ accomplishments and “help correct the imbalance of influential African-Americans honored in the halls of our nation’s Capitol.”

Built by slave labor, the Capitol has only two busts of African-Americans: civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and abolitionist Sojourner Truth. Congress approved a statue of civil rights activist Rosa Parks for Statuary Hall in 2005 — a decision to honor Parks that’s separate from the statues each state selects — but it hasn’t yet been installed.

The site of Statuary Hall is the old House chamber. The 1864 law called for all the state symbols to be placed there, but as the number of states grew, the statues became three-deep. The collection now is placed throughout the Capitol, including in the Capitol Visitor Center.

Still, Douglass’ statue won’t be considered part of the group from the states, said Eva Malecki, a spokeswoman for the Architect of the Capitol.

“It’s not part of the collection” of 100 state statues, Malecki said, pointing to the language of the law. But, she said, it’s part of the collection of the Capitol.

While that bit of nuanced wordplay might say all you need to know about how Congress conducts business, for Norton and Washington voters, it’s a start.

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