“This is black history,” Folden, 67, who leads tours about African American culture in the District, told Norton.
Her answer — that the 144-year-old statue would be preserved in another location — did nothing to assuage him.
“Why are you going to put it in a museum?” Folden asked.
“Why not?” she said, walking away.
In her 29th year as the District’s nonvoting member in Congress, Norton, 83, has thrown herself into the fray of a social upheaval that evokes the civil rights activism of her younger years, when she traveled the South and helped organize the 1963 March on Washington.
Norton’s long-standing crusade for her hometown reached a new milestone last month, when the House for the first time approved statehood for the District. But she also has joined the national debate over monuments, aligning herself with a much younger generation of activists by introducing legislation to remove the Emancipation Memorial and the statue of Andrew Jackson across from the White House.
Norton, whose great-grandfather was a fugitive slave, said she has always viewed the statues as vestiges of a once-segregated city dominated by whites “who were at pains to depict us in ways that were inhuman.”
The Emancipation Memorial was paid for by freed slaves, who had no input into its design. Frederick Douglass, the former slave and abolitionist who spoke at the memorial’s 1876 unveiling, was among those who criticized the sculpture for denigrating African Americans.
Yet a number of African American historians and leaders say the memorial should stay. Jesse Jackson Jr., the former Illinois congressman, said the statue evokes a moment near the end of the Civil War when Lincoln, while greeting former slaves on the streets of Richmond, urged one who knelt at his feet to stand up.
“That’s the existential context of the statue. It’s not just a statue of a man being subservient to Lincoln,” said Jackson, who described the moment in his 2001 book “A More Perfect Union.” For years after the dedication, he says, former slaves came to the statue and laid wreaths at its base.
“We can’t tear everything down,” Jackson said. “You can’t, on the one hand, celebrate Juneteenth . . . and then tear down the statue that marks the event. How much sense does that make?”
Norton does not see the same meaning in the memorial. “You see Abraham Lincoln up there with his hand over a black man,” she said. “That, for someone like me, is par for the course. I’ve always seen it as a relic.”
Several years ago, she sought to remove the statue of Confederate Gen. Albert Pike at Judiciary Square, which protesters toppled in June. It was the protesters’ success, she said, that inspired her to focus on Andrew Jackson and Lincoln.
Comparing the current movement to the movement that led to the landmark civil rights legislation of the 1960s, Norton said that many Americans today are showing no tolerance for “any indication that we respect our racist past.”
“You see a new generation that says, ‘All right, your generation wanted to get rid of segregation law, anti-discrimination laws — thank you, people — but you didn’t take care of all of it,’ ” Norton said. “Now we’re scrubbing. We’re scrubbing the country of remnants of racism.”
“As long as those symbols of racism are alive and well, we have not gored the snake,” she said. “It lives among us.”
She expressed delight over the passion of the protesters who have marched through the District in recent weeks and for the “Black Lives Matter” mural that Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) ordered painted on two blocks leading to the White House.
“What’s not to love?” she asked. “It really evokes our time.”
Norton said destroying statues or placing them out of public view “is about the worst thing you could do.” Instead, she said, they should be preserved in museums to “tell what is still the untold story” — how and why the monuments were conceived and erected and “why they came down.”
“Oh, boy, that is important,” she said. “In fact, the statues are a better way to tell it than reading it in books.”
At her home on Capitol Hill, a couple of blocks from the Emancipation Memorial, the congresswoman follows her own guidance.
In her kitchen, she displays two antiquated renderings of Aunt Jemima from magazines as a reminder that “our country was willing to tolerate that for most of its history.” Framed on another wall are her great-grandfather’s 1872 marriage certificate and an engraving of Union troops being disbanded in Washington in 1865.
In addition to Civil War statues, protesters across the country also have recently vandalized monuments to Christopher Columbus, for his treatment of Native Americans, and statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, both of whom owned slaves.
Norton said the country needs to be careful that it doesn’t “erase history for its own sake.” She said a commission is needed to study the lives of the Founding Fathers, and suggested additional markers could be added to existing monuments that reflect the complexity of their lives. Although Washington owned slaves, she pointed out, he struggled with the morality of the practice and, at the end of his life, ended up freeing them.
Norton, who is seeking a 16th term in Congress, won 98 percent of the vote in last month’s Democratic primary against write-in candidates. With the District’s decidedly blue electorate, she faces nominal opposition in November from Libertarian and D.C. Statehood Green Party candidates.
Early this year, Donna Brazile, Norton’s friend and former aide, gently broached the notion of retirement. “Eleanor gave me a complete lecture on what she needed to get done,” Brazile recalled. “It’s her life.”
Concerned about the coronavirus, Brazile said she felt compelled to call the congresswoman to stop her from going to the downtown to participate in the protests that began after George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis police custody in late May.
“She’s a movement person,” Brazile said. “She’s fearless. She’s also now a grandmother.”
Norton’s activism was borne of her upbringing in the District, a segregated city to which her great-grandfather, Richard Holmes, migrated after escaping from a Virginia plantation. She attended Dunbar High School and can recall her teachers crying the day her principal announced over a loudspeaker that the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling would integrate the city’s schools.
“We couldn’t try on clothes at Hecht’s department store,” Norton said. “You couldn’t go into any restaurant.”
In her 20s, as she attended Yale Law School, she became an organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, work that took her to Jackson, Miss., and a meeting with Medgar Evers on June 12, 1963.
Evers picked her up at the airport that day and later dropped her at the bus station, from where she traveled to Greenwood to visit a voter-registration drive.
The next day, she learned that Evers had been shot to death in his own driveway.
Two years later, Norton joined the American Civil Liberties Union, after which she was appointed head of New York City’s Human Rights Commission. President Jimmy Carter made her the first woman to head the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
She won the District’s congressional seat in 1990 and almost immediately embraced the campaign for statehood, the progress of which has been long and slow.
The House vote in June, she said, “will carry us light-years forward” and has given her new reasons to want to hold on to her seat, particularly with Democrats potentially winning the White House and the Senate next year.
“You gain interest when you get statehood,” she said. “Why would I go anywhere now?”
Michael Miller contributed to this report.