Before an audience that included Douglass’s descendants, national and local leaders and representatives of the many places he called home, the first statue chosen to represent the District was unveiled at a ceremony filled with pageantry in the Capitol Visitor Center’s Emancipation Hall.
Of all the notable figures who have come to live in Washington, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said, “none before or since Douglass . . . has so joined his national prominence and philosophy with the aspirations of the people of the District of Columbia. . . . He refused to separate his life in the District with the equality theme of his courageous life.”
The statue’s arrival marked the culmination of a fight by Norton and others that has stretched over a decade. Fittingly for a city that has endured repeated frustration at the hands of Congress, Wednesday’s victory was only a partial one.
The 50 states have two statues apiece in the Capitol, but the District was granted only one because congressional Republicans objected to placing the city on equal footing with the states. So a second completed statue, of architect Pierre L’Enfant, remains at One Judiciary Square.
Some speakers Wednesday noted the irony that Douglass, a champion of D.C. voting rights and self-government, was being enshrined in a building where the city’s voice remains muffled.
“We know that a single statue is not enough. . . . It is incumbent on all of us to right this wrong of history and afford the District of Columbia the voice it deserves,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.). Her fellow Democrats onstage applauded her remarks, while House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) sat in silence.
The two Republicans also declined to clap when Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) declared that the District “deserves statehood” and said that he had signed on to co-sponsor statehood legislation. Vice President Biden did not mention statehood but said he and President Obama support “home rule, budget autonomy and a vote for the District of Columbia.”
Although Republicans avoided talk of the District’s plight, Boehner praised Douglass as “an example for humanity that is unmatched,” while McConnell called him a great “leader of the Republican Party.” (Biden also joked that Douglass was “one of my favorite Republicans.”)
And Nettie Washington Douglass, his great-great-granddaughter, said he “gave his spirit as a birthright to all of us.”
Douglass is the fourth African American to have a statue or bust in the halls of Congress, following the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Sojourner Truth. Reflecting the nation’s complicated past, Statuary Hall also includes Confederate heroes Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee.
Wednesday’s ceremony made clear that Douglass’s admittance to the Capitol carries a different meaning outside the District’s borders. As Norton said, “the District shares Douglass with Maryland and New York.”
Douglass was born a slave in 1818 in Talbot County on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. He spent part of his childhood and teenage years in Baltimore before escaping slavery to New York. Douglass lived in Rochester, N.Y., for more than two decades and moved to Washington in 1871.
Douglass was appointed U.S. marshal of the District in 1877 and then became the city’s recorder of deeds. He purchased a house in Anacostia that he named Cedar Hill and was active in local politics; he once ran for the seat Norton now occupies, but failed to win the Republican nomination.
The audience Wednesday included students from the District and Frederick Douglass High School in Upper Marlboro. Other Marylanders were invited, as were guests from Rochester and a host of museums and nonprofit organizations associated with Douglass’s legacy.
D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) was one of a handful of local officials who were unhappy with how the event was handled, particularly what she considered an insufficient number of tickets for District residents.
Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said the 600 tickets for the event were apportioned in consultation with House and Senate leaders from both parties, as well as Norton. He said the “vast majority” of attendees were from the District or the surrounding area, including the D.C. Council and former mayors.
Although the event was to honor a national civil rights icon, Cheh said, “It is primarily, at its core, an acknowledgment of the people of the District of Columbia, and Frederick Douglass is a hero of ours, so we picked him.”