Unveiling a Tall Tribute to a Towering Abolitionist
Sunday, October 5, 2008
The sound of bells rang across Judiciary Square yesterday when the 850-pound bronze of Frederick Douglass was lowered onto its marble base.
The statue of the legendary abolitionist and Washingtonian, shrouded in green blankets and clear plastic wrap, had been wrestled from a flatbed truck by a crew of ironworkers, hoisted with a special gantry and then eased into place in the lobby of One Judiciary Square, at 441 Fourth St. NW.
Okay, so the bells were only tolling the time, high noon. And the audience was mostly the workers, passersby and the statue's creator, Maryland sculptor Steven Weitzman, who watched like an anxious parent with his thumbs hooked in the pockets of his jeans.
Yet the sculpture, which was designed for -- but might never see -- eventual display in the U.S. Capitol, was pronounced grand by those who saw its installation.
"It's beautifully made," said Glenda Pickett of Southeast Washington, who was in the building for a training session. "It represents strength. . . . He has an authoritative look. . . . That's Frederick Douglass, isn't it?"
The 7-foot-tall stern-faced statue depicts the powerful anti-slavery orator at the peak of his influence, Weitzman said: bearded and broad-shouldered, standing by a lectern as he delivers his famous 1852 speech about slavery and the Fourth of July.
His right hand clutches a document. His left hand grips the lectern. His frock coat is open, and his left heel is raised as if he is moving forward, about to make a point, Weitzman said.
The speech is one of the most fiery in U.S. history -- assailing the hypocrisy of a slaveholding country celebrating freedom. "What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July?" Douglass had asked that day, nine years before the Civil War. "Bombast, fraud, deception, impiety . . . a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages."
The Douglass statue, made of 15 parts welded together, is one of two recently ordered by the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. The other, of Washington's Colonial planner, Pierre L'Enfant, was installed in the One Judiciary Square lobby two weeks ago.
The Judiciary Square location is the third site sought by the commission, said Rachel Dickerson, its public art manager.
The original idea was that the two statues would join the U.S. Congress's National Statuary Hall Collection, in the Capitol. That collection comprises 100 statues, two submitted by each state.
But because the District is not a state, special legislation is required to let the city add its two statues. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) introduced a bill in 2005 to allow the statues to join the collection. A spokeswoman said that the bill has not passed but that Norton plans to introduce it again.