Nearly everyone agrees that Albert Pike should go.
Pike is the Confederate general memorialized in a 27-foot-tall bronze and marble monument in Judiciary Square, the busy downtown Washington neighborhood filled with local and federal courts and museums just north of the Mall.
That a Confederate general who championed the South’s secession ended up in a place of honor in the middle of the nation’s capital is odd.
But not as strange as the predicament the statue faces.
While communities across the country debate the proper treatment of Confederate statues — a tense issue that triggered summer violence in Charlottesville — there is no argument over the Pike statue.
Everyone, from Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) to the chair of a congressional committee that would have to approve its removal, says it’s fine to take it down.
The problem is that if Congress votes to remove it, no one wants custody. Pike would be homeless, a political hot potato.
Even the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, the fraternal organization that commissioned the Pike statue, petitioned Congress for its installation in 1898 and reveres Pike as a hero, doesn’t want to accept responsibility for it.
“I have no clue,” said Arturo de Hoyos, grand archivist for the Scottish Rite, when asked what should be done with the Pike statue. “I haven’t even thought that far. It’s [federal] property; they can do with it what they want with it.”
The effort to remove the statue began in earnest during the summer, in the wake of Charlottesville. Protesters in the District descended on the Pike statue. Someone splashed red paint, an activist projected the words "remove racism," and a banner draped around it declared the Trump administration to be "modern confederates."
Ronald Seale, the bow-tie-wearing leader of the Washington-based Scottish Rite, acknowledged that the Pike statue had become “the subject of contention and escalating controversy” and that his group would agree to its removal.
The Freemasons “will support an action by the District of Columbia to remove the statue forthwith so that it shall not serve as a source of contention or strife for the residents of our community,” he wrote in August to D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2).
Evans called Seale. They hatched a plan to whisk away the statue at midnight using a flatbed truck Seale found and a crane Evans found, free. Neither man asked too many questions of the other.
Seale found a place to send it. “Do you want to know where?” he asked, according to Evans. “No way,” Evans said.
Then Evans called the National Park Service.
He was told they risked charges of trespassing and vandalism because the statue sits on federal land. Evans called off the caper. He says he regrets checking first with the Park Service instead of forging ahead. Seale did not return multiple messages seeking comment.
“He wasn’t even a good Confederate general,” Evans said. “He was a bad Confederate general, but nonetheless he was a Confederate general . . . It should be gone, for every reason you can think of.”
Enter Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), the city’s nonvoting member of Congress. She filed legislation this month to seek congressional approval for the statue’s removal.
Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.), chairman of the Natural Resources subcommittee that must approve its removal, said it’s fine to take it down.
“If the statue honors him for taking up arms against our Constitution, I would be inclined to support its removal,” McClintock said in a statement. “I haven’t seen the bill, but I’ve never understood the romanticization of the Confederacy.”
In Pike's adopted home state of Arkansas, his name is on a highway, a campground and the Albert Pike Memorial Temple in Little Rock.
But C. James Graham, the top Freemason in the state, said there’s no room for the statue at his temple even if funds could be raised for a 1,000-mile trip.
“I don’t know that we would necessarily want it,” said Graham, 58, an associate dean at the University of Arkansas medical school.
To Scottish Rite Freemasons, Pike was a hero. His bust tops a grand staircase at their expansive temple on 16th Street NW.
A shrine there displays relics of his life and death, including a plaster mask said to bear a few errant beard hairs. His body lies entombed within the temple’s marble walls.
Pike, a Boston native who relocated to Arkansas before the Civil War, served as the sovereign grand commander of the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, southern jurisdiction, for more than three decades.
Six feet tall and 300 pounds with a beard and billowing hair to his shoulders, Pike was an imposing figure who grew the largest Scottish Rite branch — now spanning 35 states — and wrote “Morals and Dogma,” a dense, 861-page opus linking its rituals to a higher plane. It’s the tome tucked under Pike’s arm in the sculpture.
Pike was commissioned as a Confederate Army brigadier general but his wartime career lasted less than two years; his men were accused of scalping Union troops, and he was eventually forced to resign. He received a reprieve from President Andrew Johnson and moved to Washington, where he died in 1891.
Eight years later, Congress approved the Freemasons’ request to erect a statue in Pike’s honor. The organization initially budgeted $5,000 for an Italian-made sculpture by Gaetano Trentanove, but it cost three times that, according to Scottish Rite records.
The plan did face objections from some quarters, including a fraternal organization for Union soldiers.
But on Oct. 23, 1901, amid great ceremony, the statue was unveiled. A grand master Mason performed the rituals, which included a sprinkling of corn, wine and oil.
According to legend, Pike shared the Scottish Rite rituals with his African American barber, a Mason in a segregated lodge in the District. The moment is remembered locally as a seminal moment in the development of African American Freemasonry in the District.
Phillip David, grand master of an African American D.C. lodge, said that despite Pike’s stature within the fraternity, the Confederacy tried to overthrow the U.S. government.
“I think that should disturb all Americans,” David, 52, said. “I appreciate what he did for Masonry, but some things are a little more important than the organization you belong to.”
Online, debate flourishes about Pike's true character. Critics call him a racist and a Ku Klux Klan member — a persistent criticism that historians say cannot be proven — and a member of the fiercely anti-immigrant Know-Nothing Party.
“Looking at his story, he was not terribly unusual for his time and place,” said Jane F. Levey, chief historian of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.
De Hoyos, who recorded a June 2017 podcast “Defending Albert Pike,” said Pike was actually against slavery but moved to the South because he believed in states’ rights. DeHoyos lamented his reputation as a divider.
“Honestly, I think that’s very unfortunate,” De Hoyos said. “Pike was the head of a fraternal organization that brought people together.”
Still, Norton wants Congress to direct the Park Service to remove the Pike statue. Her two-page bill is silent on where the statue should go.
It does make one thing clear: The federal government would not foot the bill.