This February marks the first time the Capitol has celebrated Black History Month with two statues of prominent African-Americans standing in its collection.
Prior to the Feb. 27, 2013, unveiling of a 9-foot, bronze-cast statue of civil rights icon Rosa Parks in National Statuary Hall, there were no full-size sculptures of African-Americans among the 110 portrait statues cared for by the Architect of the Capitol for the Congress. The 2,100-pound work depicts Parks seated on a rock-like foundation, symbolizing her 1955 arrest for refusing to move to the back of a segregated bus.
Four months later, a 7-foot-tall bronze, bearded likeness of abolitionist Frederick Douglass was unveiled in the Capitol Visitor Center’s Emancipation Hall. Douglass stands in a formal double-breasted coat and bow tie, firmly grasping a lectern topped with an inkwell and quill pen, in homage to his incisive antislavery writing.
The two statues joined a bust of women’s rights advocate and abolitionist Sojourner Truth, displayed in Emancipation Hall since 2009, and a bust of Martin Luther King Jr., on display in the Rotunda since 1986, for a total of four sculptures of African-Americans commemorated by Congress for their defining roles in our national character.
For Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., the new additions are a great reason to invite her constituents into the Capitol to commemorate Black History Month. Norton has started offering tours of the four statues for District residents, culminating with the figure she holds in highest esteem. The journey ends in Emancipation Hall with Douglass — the first statue Congress has granted to a jurisdiction that’s not a state and won after a long fight by Norton and her allies on Capitol Hill.
“The reason we chose Frederick Douglass is because he was an ardent proponent of full equality for the residents of the District of Columbia,” Norton told CQ Roll Call. “We weren’t just looking for another famous black man; we found the right black man, a man who built his home in the District of Columbia who was an icon of his time and remains an icon of American history today.”
The 50 states are each allowed two figures in Statuary Hall, and Norton for years proposed legislation to give D.C. that same privilege. Spurred by her bill, the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities began the process of soliciting suggestions for which luminaries to honor. While Douglass won a place in the Capitol, a statue of Pierre L’Enfant — the architect who designed the city — remains downtown in the John A. Wilson Building.
Norton said Douglass means more to District residents than the other prominent black figures because he “represents progress for D.C.”
On Wednesday, the Capitol Visitor Center paid tribute to Douglass as part of a monthlong series of Exhibition Hall talks celebrating Black History Month. The CVC invited Ka’mal McClarin, museum curator at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, for a 15-minute presentation in front of their “A More Perfect Union” exhibit.
McClarin pointed out that Douglass was born a slave in 1818 in Talbot County, not far from the District on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. He moved to Washington in 1871 and was later appointed U.S. marshal of the District, the chief law enforcement officer of D.C.
Douglass was “friends of many African-Americans serving in the halls of Congress,” McClarin said, and frequently visited the Hill to lobby for access to education. His final home was in Anacostia’s Cedar Hill, because Douglass saw Washington, according to McClarin, as “the seed of the whole notion of civic nationalism.”
Most importantly to Norton and her constituents, he was also a champion for equal citizenship for District residents.