Douglass Statue Saga: a Catalyst for D.C. Statehood

As we begin our celebration of our nation’s birthday, we in Washington, D.C., have a special reason to celebrate. On June 19, for the very first time, the citizens of D.C. were finally represented in the U.S. Capitol Building.

No, unfortunately, it was not with a voting representative or two U.S. senators, but with a glorious and magnificent sculpture in Emancipation Hall of D.C. resident and freedom fighter, Frederick Douglass.

Each of the 50 states has at least one statue. We, until a few weeks ago, had none.

A little history is in order. Many years ago, I observed a memorable ceremony in Statuary Hall in the Capitol Building. Sacajawea, the Native American who guided Lewis and Clark on their Northwestern expedition, was being honored with a statue. It seemed to me the entire state of North Dakota was there. There was such a wonderful spirit of state solidarity and pride. I thought to myself: why doesn’t D.C. have a statue of its own?

I once had a very brief conversation with former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert about this idea. Hastert was extremely unpleasant and hostile to the idea. In fact, he mumbled that “Then, the territories will want one,” (as if they were not U.S. citizens too).

On my radio commentaries and in articles, I frequently mentioned how a statue could be a catalyst for concrete action towards full D.C. statehood.

On July 15, 2012, I wrote an op-ed piece in the local opinions page of the Washington Post, headlined “Monuments to the Mistreatment of the District.” Accompanying the article was a picture of the sculpture of Douglass which Steven Weitzman had so beautifully done.

On June 19, the ceremony finally took place. But the ceremony was seriously marred by one of our own elected officials, who failed to share the credit for this momentous moment. D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton navigated the bill through Congress but she never once mentioned the essential role that others played.

First of all, Norton did not even have the courtesy to acknowledge or recognize our present Mayor Vincent Gray or former Mayors Sharon Pratt, Anthony Williams and widow of the first appointed and elected Mayor Walter Washington, Mary Washington. She couldn’t have missed them. They were sitting in the front row.

Second, she ignored the sculptor Steve Weitzman, who lovingly created this powerful presence in bronze. This was inexcusable.

And, finally, the councilmember who secured the funding and was most responsible for the statue actually being constructed, Jack Evans, was never acknowledged. This brazen and deliberate omission by Norton has to be called out.

The highlight of the day was the inspiring remarks of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and, best of all, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s stirring endorsement of D.C. statehood by saying he had “signed on” to the D.C. statehood bill.

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., the introducer of the bill, said he would hold hearings in the fall. The statue had achieved its purpose. Now, things are starting to happen.

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Thu, 27 Nov 2014 20:28:37 -0500

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