Statue of Limitations

One of the more interesting things for visitors to see in the Capitol is the National Statuary Hall Collection.

It consists of 100 statues placed throughout the building – two donated by each state to commemorate people who have had an impact on their state and the nation.

While most of the statues are traditional marble sculptures of the usual suspects in U.S. history, the collection has also changed with the times. Since 2000, states are allowed to even replace their statues if they so choose – which has happened three times already.

Walking through the halls of the Capitol now, there are a few statues that manage to surprise.

There are the modern – like Utah’s “Father of Television” Philo T. Farnsworth, or Colorado astronaut John L. “Jack” Swigert, Jr.

Colorado’s modern statue of John L. “Jack” Swigert, Jr. – an astronaut who was also elected to Congress. (Photo courtesy of Architect of the Capitol)

There are the women – like Alabama’s Helen Keller and Montana’s Jeanette Rankin.

There are the Native Americans and Pacific Islanders –  like New Mexico’s Po’pay and Hawaii’s King Kamehameha I.

And there are even the Confederates – like Mississippi’s Jefferson Davis and Virgnia’s Robert E. Lee.

But there are limits to the breadth of the official collection. So far there are no African-Americans among the 100 statues, and there are no contributions from the District of Columbia.

That could soon change, with a statue of Frederick Douglass that will be heading to the Capitol.

This week, Congress passed a resolution to give Douglass – former slave, abolitionist, and longtime District resident – “a suitable location in the Capitol.”

Frederick Douglass statue (Photo: Evan Von Leer)

Douglass’s statue had been cooling its heels a few blocks from the Capitol in a D.C. government building at One Judiciary Square. For the past couple of years he’s stood there in relative obscurity, along with another famous Washingtonian – the designer of the capital Pierre Charles L’Enfant.

I stumbled upon both statues one day while attending a meeting in the building – and at the time had no idea of their political significance.

D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton has been trying to get the District equal representation in Congress throughout her career, and equal representation in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall collection for the past decade. The District selected two prominent Washingtonians – Douglass and L’Enfant – and commissioned their statues in 2006.

Washington designer Pierre Charles L’Enfant will be staying put at One Judiciary Square for the time being. (Photo: Evan Von Leer)

This week’s Congressional compromise will have one of those statues moving to the Capitol, but not as an official part of the Statuary Hall Collection. Douglass’s statue will reside in the Capitol Visitor Center – which is in some ways fitting because of its association with Emancipation Hall, and the fact that more people will actually get to see the statue.

Douglass will join Sojourner Truth, whose bust is also in Emancipation Hall. The only other African-American statue in Congress is the bust of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Rotunda.

But this year Congress commissioned a statue of civil rights heroine Rosa Parks, and there is a movement afoot in Maryland to replace one of their statues with Harriet Tubman.

As Douglass himself said, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”

Words the District can certainly agree with.

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