“Power concedes nothing without a demand.”
— Frederick Douglass, abolitionist
After years of political wrangling in Congress, the District will finally get a statue of Frederick Douglass erected inside the Capitol. A bronze likeness will be placed in or near Statuary Hall alongside other favorite sons. Virginia, for instance, has statues of George Washington and Robert E. Lee, while Maryland honors Charles Carroll and John Hanson.
So what does a statue of Douglass — escaped slave, self-educated abolitionist — symbolize for the District in the 21st century?
“The question is: Can the white and colored people of this country,” Douglass wrote in June 1863, “be blended into a common nationality, and enjoy together, in the same country, under the same flag, the inestimable blessings of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, as neighborly citizens of a common country?”
The answer from the city that would place him on a pedestal: No, not yet.
While the rest of the nation may be suffering from the economic doldrums, the nation’s capital is experiencing a cornucopia of riches. But the bounty is not being enjoyed by all. The top 5 percent of households, which are predominantly white, make roughly $473,000 a year. For the bottom 20 percent, which are virtually all black, the average household takes in less than $10,000 a year.
White unemployment in the city is virtually nonexistent; joblessness among blacks is as high as 30 percent in some neighborhoods. One in three black children is poor; one in eight black households is struggling against hunger. More than 7,000 black children in the District are being housed in juvenile correctional facilities. Nearly half of black students do not graduate from high school.
The two groups might as well be living in different worlds.
But does Douglass also symbolize the solution?
We celebrate the great abolitionist because of his stirring, up-by-the-bootstraps biography. Born a slave in Talbot County, Md., circa 1818, he escaped at age 21 and taught himself to read. He joined the antislavery movement, helping to operate the Underground Railroad that brought tens of thousands of black people out of slavery to freedom.
He published newspapers, became a fiery orator, recruited blacks to join the Union Army during the Civil War and even served as an adviser to President Abraham Lincoln.
As a District resident — his home is now a historic landmark on Cedar Hill in Southeast, overlooking the Anacostia River — Douglass served as U.S. marshal and later recorder of deeds for the city. He was also president of the Freedman’s Savings Bank, which was set up to help ex-slaves make a fresh start.
Not heralded quite so much is the fact that he was a Republican who espoused what today might be called traditional family values.
“Let us educate our children, even though it should us subject to a coarser or scantier diet, and disrobe us of our few fine garments,” Douglass wrote in July 1848. To Douglass, education was the key to freedom and was worth any sacrifice.
On the other hand, he noted, poverty was — and remains — the “greatest enemy,” drawing down on black people “the very condition which makes us a helpless, hopeless, dependent and dispirited people, the target for the contempt and scorn of all around us.”
The only solution to that problem: money. But how does one get it? “Work for it,” Douglass said. “Money, if you please, will purchase for us the only condition upon which any people can rise to the dignity of genuine manhood.”
It is hard to imagine Douglass not going ballistic over Congress’s refusal to pass President Obama’s jobs bill. And, no doubt, he’d be baffled why those who stand to benefit the most are holding their tongues.
Douglass was a searing critic of America’s racial hypocrisy — a nation that called itself “the land of the free” while at the same time being the home of the slave. But does the city really appreciate just how often Douglass returned to the question: “What are the colored people doing for themselves?”
In fighting to secure a place for Douglass’s statue in the Capitol — a privilege usually reserved for states — D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) has achieved more than a symbolic victory in the District’s quest for statehood.
The greater symbol is Douglass himself, whose call for freedom through education and work resonates through time — and should throughout the city.
“If we are careless and unconcerned about our own rights and interests,” he wrote, “it is not within the power of all the earth combined to raise us from our present degraded condition.”
To read previous columns by Courtland Milloy, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.