By Jana Curry
Frederick Douglass is commonly known as an escaped slave turned social reformer, orator, writer, and statesman. After escaping from slavery, he became a leader of the abolitionist movement. He stood as a living counter-example to slaveholders’ arguments that slaves did not have the intellectual capacity to function as independent American citizens. Douglass wrote several autobiographies, eloquently describing his experiences in slavery.
On May 21, 2013, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill authorizing the use of the Emancipation Hall in the U.S. Capitol’s Visitor Center for the unveiling of the District of Columbia’s statute of Fredrick Douglass. The statute was permanently placed in the Emancipation Hall Wednesday, June 19, 2013 joining 18 other men and women honored.
The former slave who became a champion for civil rights in the 19th century is now the fourth African-American with a statute in the Capitol, and the first representative of the District of Columbia. Emancipation Hall is also home to statues of Rosa Parks, Sojourner Truth and Martin Luther King Jr.
Frederick Douglass was a leader in the forefront of so many movements – civil rights, women’s rights, and voting rights. Some might call him a leading suffragist of the 1800’s and a major player on the Underground Railroad. Douglass was one of the most influential lecturers and authors in American history. This statute is another symbol of his legacy that will continue to live on for generations to come. The statute is significant for another reason. Because only states may place statutes in the Capitol, the question of moving the Douglass statue from a Washington office building to Emancipation Hall became fused with Congressional Republican opposition to D.C. statehood.
As one might expect due to Democrat control of the Senate, the Senate approved a measure allowing the Douglass statue in 2012. On that day, Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) said, “Today, after years of work, our city receives closure that residents will be represented in the Capitol with a statute, like each of the 50 states.” Representative Holmes Norton continued to say “in choosing Douglass, the citizens of the District were showing their commitment to issues of self-governance—an ongoing struggle”.
The House followed with the bill passing on September 10, 2012. Speaker John Boehner (R- OH) organized and led the event for the unveiling, which was attended by descendants of Frederick Douglass, local leaders, members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden. Nettie Washington Douglass, his great-great-granddaughter, said he “gave his spirit as a birthright to all of us.”
Vice President Biden, who spoke at the ceremony noted, “There is arguably no one who fought harder for citizenship and full equality than Frederick Douglass.” Biden continued by saying “Over a century ago, Douglass asked a good question, he said, ‘What have the people of the District done that they should be excluded from the privileges of the ballot box?’”
Washington resident Viviane Smith, former president of the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association, said during the unveiling ceremony, “It’s a feat of those who have labored long to bring him here.”
Representative Holmes Norton affirmed that there is no better figure to represent the District than Fredrick Douglass, who made the city his home and was deeply involved in D.C. government and in the civic affairs of the city. Douglass is not only one of the great international icons of human rights; he is remembered in the District also for his representation for the city.
The ceremony made clear that Douglass’s admittance to the Capitol carries a different meaning outside the District’s borders. As Representative Holmes Norton said, “the District shares Douglass with Maryland and New York.”
Douglass was born a slave in 1818 in Talbot County on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. He spent part of his childhood and teenage years in Baltimore before escaping slavery to New York. Douglass lived in Rochester, N.Y., for more than two decades and then moved to Washington in 1871.
Douglass was appointed U.S. Marshal for the District in 1877 and then became the city’s recorder of deeds. He purchased a house in Anacostia that he named Cedar Hill and was active in local politics; he once ran for the seat Representative Holmes Norton now occupies, but failed to win the Republican nomination.
Created by sculptor Steven Weitzman, Frederick Douglass’s statute is just over seven feet tall, and bronze, a bearded figure with a determined gaze perched atop a three-foot marble pedestal. The combined weight is 1,700 pounds, but the symbolic impact of the Frederick Douglass statute is much greater.