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–by Alex Bookout, USCHS intern

The United States has its fair share of celebrated history, yet like every other country, it also has its history of grave wrongdoings. For the United States, a major portion of this abhorrent history occurred during the 18th and 19th centuries in the form of chattel slavery. However, rather than try to hide from the mistakes of past Americans, slavery has become very much an integral part of our history. It may not shine a favorable light on the United States, but slavery’s impact in our contemporary world is seen in literature, music, art, architecture, and academia, amongst other things. And through these areas of cultural impact, influential black leaders continue to emerge, permanently impacting U.S. history.

I bring up slavery and history because one day my mom asked me a question about my research on the statues in the Capitol: “How many African Americans are represented by statues?” At the time I was unsure, but I went on to research her question and noticed a pretty substantial disparity. What I found was astounding: out of the 100 statues in the National Statuary Hall Collection, none represented an African American. There are four African Americans that are represented in sculpture in the Capitol, three of which were sent by Congress and the other that was voted for by a district with no congressional representative. Congress commissioned a statue of Rosa Parks and busts of Martin Luther King Jr. and Sojourner Truth. The District of Colombia recently contributed a statue of Frederick Douglass, a selection that garnered some controversy because D.C. is not a state, and therefore the statue is not a part of the National Statuary Hall Collection. For the number of influential black leaders in the history of the United States, this hardly seems like equal representation.

Alexander Stephens (left) and Rosa Parks as they appear in the Capitol.

The question I am thankful my mom didn’t ask me was, “How many Confederates are represented in the Capitol?” If she did, I would have told her that there are several Confederate military and political leaders represented and countless other figures who supported slavery. Included are both the President and Vice President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis of Mississippi and Alexander Hamilton Stephens of Georgia. Legislation from 1864 states that each state is allowed to send two statues of “illustrious citizens deemed worthy of national commemoration” to represent their state in the National Statuary Hall Collection, but that the decision is up to them.[1] At the time, many of the “illustrious citizens” from the southern states were Confederates and slave holders. You cannot fault the person for being posthumously selected to be represented by a statue, but rather wonder today why they still stand. Since 1864, more prominent citizens have emerged and because of this, states have lobbied Congress to let them change their statues. Congress acknowledged this request and in 2003 passed a law which made it possible for states to replace existing statues. Despite this new law, states have replaced white males with white males; the only exception is Helen Keller from Alabama, who replaced J.L.M. Curry, a high ranking Confederate soldier. Alabama’s other statue, however, is General Joseph Wheeler, another Confederate soldier.

Many look to the 13th Amendment, the end of slavery in the United States, as the mark of freedom for African Americans. Then there are those that argue that political equality for African Americans was not attained until the 1965 Voting Rights Act. And even then, people might say that complete social and economic equality still does not exist today. Looking at the underrepresentation of African Americans and the overrepresentation of those denying their rights in National Statuary Hall, you could very well make this claim. The absence of African Americans in National Statuary Hall does not show that states are overtly racist and it most certainly does not show that this country lacks illustrious black citizens. What it does do is remind us that although our country has made serious strides in equal rights and representation, we must continue to work toward a more perfect union.

Works Cited

[1] Teresa B. Lachin, “Worthy of National Commemoration: National Statuary Hall and the Heroic Ideal, 1864-1997” in The United States Capitol: Designing and Decorating a National Icon, ed. by Donald R. Kennon (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2000), 274.

More for more information about the artwork in the Capitol, visit the websites of the Architect of the Capitol, the Senate History office, or the House Office of the Historian/Office of Art and Archives.