A Veritable 'Who's That?' of U.S. History

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 1, 2008

When the first crowds surge through the doors of the lavish new Capitol Visitor Center this fall, they will be steeped in the saga of American Democracy and greeted with a statue of that pillar of the nation . . . Ephraim McDowell, the pioneering hernia surgeon.

Elsewhere in the glittering tribute to good government, pilgrims will find a bronze of the noted agriculturalist Julius Sterling Morton . . . the founder of Arbor Day!

And what temple to the political life of the United States would be complete without a statue of . . . Philo T. Farnsworth, the inventor of television?

That's not all. When the visitor center opens Dec. 2 on the east side of the Capitol, tourists will also encounter statues of such figures as Ernest Gruening, Alaska's first U.S. senator; Joseph Ward, founder of now-defunct Yankton College; John M. Clayton, co-negotiator of the oft-forgotten Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850. There will be a Hawaiian king, a Montana pacifist and a Colorado astronaut.

In vain will visitors look for statues of the titans in U.S. history in the $621 million underground complex, now getting its finishing touches. Instead, they will see the 23 most recent acquisitions of the National Statuary Hall Collection, a relatively contemporary array of individuals, albeit a bit obscure.

"These are not people you would normally expect if you were looking at it from the perspective of national history," said Maryland historian Teresa B. Lachin, who has researched the collection. "A lot of these people, we've never heard of them."

Congress, in conjunction with the Architect of the Capitol, chose the most recent, and, for the most part, contemporary, additions to the 100-statue collection, officials said.

The statues had been spread throughout the Capitol building, some in out-of-the-way corners and corridors off-limits to most tourists. Now they are being placed in and around the center's majestic central gathering space, Emancipation Hall, which commemorates the slave labor that helped build the Capitol.

That raised the uncomfortable dilemma about what to do with the likenesses of bewhiskered Wade Hampton III of South Carolina -- whose aristocratic family once owned thousands of slaves -- and fellow Confederate General E. Kirby Smith of Florida.

Officials decided that they would not place the statues of Hampton, a top cavalry commander, or Smith, whose statue depicts him in a Confederate officer's uniform, in Emancipation Hall. Instead, they will be put elsewhere in the visitors center.

The decision was applauded by Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), who pushed for the hall's name.

"Emancipation Hall . . . stands really as a memorial to our nation's struggle from slavery to freedom, from oppression to equality," he said. "I think it is . . . inappropriate for a statue of a Confederate leader or slave owner to be placed inside Emancipation Hall."

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