–by Sarah Lewis and Allie Swislocki
Spirits were high on Wednesday, June 19 at the Capitol Visitor Center, when Washington, D.C.’s first statue was unveiled in Emancipation Hall. This day commemorates the abolition of slavery in Texas on a day known as Juneteenth. Frederick Douglass has officially joined the Capitol’s Congressional Statue Collection, serving not only as D.C.’s first statue in the collection, but also as a vital addition to the Capitol’s African American sculptures, joining the ranks of Dr. Martin Luther King, Sojourner Truth, and Rosa Parks. The arrival of his statue also welcomes the possibility for other US territories to argue for sculptural presence in the Capitol as well.
Legislation was sponsored by the Honorable Eleanor Holmes Norton (DC) in the House and the Honorable Chuck Schumer (NY) in the Senate, and both were in attendance with inspiring remarks at Wednesday’s ceremony. There is no doubt that Douglass’ presence will do DC residents proud, along with the thousands of other tourists who visit our nation’s Capitol each year. Born into slavery in Talbot County, Maryland, Douglass escaped to freedom and went on to become one of the most important figures in history to fight for civil rights. He fought for freedom throughout his life for both African-Americans and women, from equal voting rights to anti-lynching laws, and eventually made Washington D.C. his home.
Douglass’ impact as a champion of civil rights is still felt today and was apparent during the unveiling ceremony. In addition to the dignitaries mentioned previously, some famous names and faces participated: Dr. Edna Greene Medford, current chair of Howard University’s Department of History; Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi (CA); Senator Mitch McConnell (KY); Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (NV); Speaker of the House John Boehner (OH); and Vice President Joe Biden. Seeing such illustrious figures speak about Douglass was certainly a thrill, but a different excitement came when a representative from Douglass’ family got up to deliver a word of thanks. Nettie Washington Douglass is a descendent of both Frederick Douglass and his peer (and rival), Booker T. Washington. Hearing her talk about her family’s history and background was like watching a piece of history come to life in front of us.
The event was highlighted with beautiful musical selections: the United States Army Brass Quartet’s selections and the United States Army Chorus’s rendition of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” helped set the backdrop of the Civil War. Lori Williams’ version of the freedom song “Oh, Freedom” (also performed by Joan Baez at the March on Washington in 1963—50th anniversary coming up in August!) was absolutely stirring. We could see the reaction on all the attendee’s faces—Vice President Biden himself was awestruck. It was a great vision of how far we’ve come—as a country—since Douglass’ lifetime, and a reminder of how far we still have to go.
For more information, please visit the Architect of the Capitol’s page on the Douglass statue.