A five-year fight to get abolitionist Frederick Douglass inside the Capitol has apparently ended in an impasse, with the life-size statue of the 19th-century hero left standing in a District of Columbia government building about four blocks off the Hill.
The statue, completed by sculptor Steven Weitzman in 2007, has been blocked from the Rotunda and the Capitol Visitor Center because current law allows only statues from the states—not from Washington, D.C.—to be displayed in the Capitol complex.
Two weeks ago, Weitzman asked the D.C. agency that commissioned his work to make a last petition for its placement at the Capitol. But the Architect of the Capitol’s office gave Lionell Thomas, the executive director of the D.C. Arts and Humanities Commission, the same answer that he has already heard many times before.
“Until the original legislation is amended, only statues from the 50 states are allowed, by law, in the National Statuary Hall Collection,” Eva Malecki, spokeswoman for the architect, told National Journal Daily.
A bill allowing D.C. to place two statues in the Capitol has been idling in the House Administration Committee since last fall.
Weitzman’s statue of Douglass was the product of more than a year of research, model-building, and sculpting. It depicts the abolitionist leader in his 50s, delivering a speech with a paper in his hand and a pen at his side, to suggest his talents as both a writer and an orator.
When Weitzman was ready to unveil his artwork in 2007, he learned that Congress refused to house the statue—based solely on the jurisdiction that claims Douglass as its own, the District of Columbia.
Each state may offer two statues to be approved by the president and added to the Capitol collection, but until D.C. wins statehood, the architect says that it is prohibited from bestowing the honor on its heroes.
The 100 sculptures in the Capitol sent by the states include no African-Americans. A bust of the head and shoulders of Martin Luther King Jr. has been on display in the Rotunda since 1985, and the Capitol Visitor Center received a bust of Sojourner Truth in 2009. Both were commissioned by Congress as national heroes, however, and not as statues commissioned by a state.
“There is a need to have people to look up to, to mold and guide their future,” Weitzman said. “Certainly, we have Barack Obama as president, but I doubt very much if Barack Obama or all of the people that came before him would have had as much potency if it wasn’t for a man like Frederick Douglass.”
Douglass was born on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, but he spent much of his adult life in the District, including his final years at his home in Anacostia from 1878 until his death in 1895.
Weitzman read everything thing he could find on Douglass, including his “West India Emancipation” speech delivered in Canandaigua, N.Y., where he said, “Without struggle, there is no progress.” Those words are engraved on the base of Weitzman’s statue.
D.C. had commissioned two artists—the other to make a statue of architect Pierre L’Enfant, who designed the city’s layout—with the understanding that their final work would be placed in the Capitol.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., pushed for the statues of Douglass and L’Enfant to be admitted to the Capitol, but she ran into a wall in the House. In 2010, the House Administration Committee, then chaired by Rep. Robert Brady, D-Pa., approved a bill to allow the District to submit the two statues, but the measure did not pass the House.
Current Committee Chairman Dan Lungren, R-Calif., proposed a similar bill in October 2011, but the panel has not yet considered it. Without a place in the Capitol, the statue of Frederick Douglass is on display in a D.C. government building at 441 4th St. NW.
This article appears in the June 6, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.