Capital Living

Dems use Douglass dedication to argue for DC statehood

Democratic leaders used the dedication Wednesday of a statue to Frederick Douglass to argue for Washington, D.C., to be made the 51st state.

Vice President Biden, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) all mentioned the issue in their remarks while Republican leaders remained mum on the topic.

“What Frederick Douglass and so many of us want is full representation in Congress,” Pelosi said during Wednesday’s ceremony at the Capitol.

Statehood for the District is a divisive issue. Democrats want to see the deep-blue city, which is under the jurisdiction of Congress, get statehood (and more votes for their party) while Republicans argue the District was never intended to have voting members of Congress.

Congress has the power to grant statehood status, and Reid said, “To show how serious I am on this, I signed my name as sponsor to legislation in the United States Senate.”

The issue came up at the dedication of the Douglass statute — a nonpolitical event — because it was a gift from the District in honor of the civil rights leader’s residency in the city in the last years of his life. Douglass was also a strong advocate for D.C. statehood.

The Douglass statue is the first from the District in the in the Capitol complex. Each state is allocated two statues, and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton advocated for years for D.C. to have the same rights.

One statue for the District was the compromise.

The statue was placed in Emancipation Hall of the Capitol Visitor Center in a ceremony featuring Douglass’s descendents and several members of Congress.

The fact that Douglass was a Republican did not go unnoticed.

“Mitch, I agree with you that Frederick Douglass was a great Republican,” Biden told Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), “one of my favorite Republicans, as are you.”

The statue was commissioned seven years ago but was delayed by statehood amendments and rules about D.C.’s gun laws that were attached to any measure advocating its placement.

But with the help of then-Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), approval of the statue was given last year.

Last month, each chamber passed a resolution authorizing its placement in Emancipation Hall.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) acknowledged the battle in his opening remarks, telling D.C. residents, “You have long labored to see this day come.”

Still languishing is the completed statue of Pierre L’Enfant, who planned the district. Advocates argue it should be the second of D.C.’s statues.

The 7-foot bronze statue of Douglass was sculpted by Steve Weitzman of Maryland and depicts the abolitionist in his 50s as an orator and writer.

Captured in bronze, Douglass is mid-speech, leaning on a lectern equipped with inkwell and quill pen, clutching papers in his right hand.

“When I began researching the man and his dreams and self-sacrifice, his position in life and what he fought to become, it became to clear to me that there was a lot more to him than I could imagine,” Weitzman told The Hill.

Douglass was a social reformer, orator, writer and statesman. He became a leader of the abolitionist movement after he escaped from slavery.

He was born into slavery — the exact date of his birth is unknown — in Maryland and escaped in 1838. His autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, was published in 1845 and became a bestseller.

Douglass advocated for equal rights for all and was the only African-American to attend the first women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, N.Y. In 1872, he became the first African-American nominated for vice president, as Victoria Woodhull’s running mate on the Equal Rights Party ticket. He died on Feb. 20, 1895.

The full clay model of his statue took about 9 months to make, while the fabrication of the bronze and its granite base took about another 9 months.

It is Weitzman’s first piece in the Capitol.

“It’s such an honor to have it in there period, I wouldn’t even fathom the notion there could be another possibility,” he said.

Douglass is the fourth African-American to be represented in the Capitol’s art collection, joining a statue of Rosa Parks and busts of Martin Luther King Jr. and Sojourner Truth.

Tags Boehner Chuck Schumer Harry Reid John Boehner Mitch McConnell

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