A 7-foot-tall statue of famed, lion-maned abolitionist Frederick Douglass that was dedicated Wednesday on Capitol Hill is perhaps best understood as a bronze symbol of the partisan divide in Washington and of racial politics.
The ex-slave, who later became a friend of President Abraham Lincoln, was a federal official and an important journalist of his day. It took years for a statue of him to land a spot because it became a proxy in the fight over voting rights and statehood for Washington, D.C.
District of Columbia officials years ago asked to have statues representing the district placed on display in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall just like the statues provided by the 50 states. They wanted two statues, one of Douglass and another of Pierre L’Enfant, the Frenchman who planned the layout of the district.
Republicans rebuffed the request, however, arguing that D.C. was not a state and therefore didn’t rate the privilege of having representation in Statuary Hall.
The back and forth went on for years with national Democrats supporting the district, which has a nonvoting delegate in the House, for the usual reasons. The district is overwhelmingly Democratic and until recently was majority black. A politician’s support for district voting rights and statehood has long been viewed by African-Americans as general solidarity with them.
For Republicans, there was little upside to the strongly Democratic district getting statehood or votes in Congress. Allowing the statues could be a step down a slippery slope since the district would receive yet one more attribute of a state.
A compromise was reached in September. Douglass, but not L’Enfant, would get a Capitol Hill spot, though in the Capitol Visitor Center, not Statuary Hall.
It probably helped the cause of Douglass’ statue that he belonged to the GOP, like most abolitionists before and during the Civil War, and African-Americans after the war.
At the official dedication ceremony Wednesday, House Speaker John Boehner noted that at the 1888 Republican National Convention, Douglass was the first African-American to have his name placed in nomination for the presidency. Benjamin Harrison, the eventual nominee and president, had little to worry about: Douglass got just one vote.
Allowing the Douglass statue also probably wouldn’t hurt and might help the image of a Republican Party whose establishment knows it needs to attract more minority voters or at least not turn them off.
Meanwhile, Democrats like Vice President Joe Biden, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi used the dedication event to call for the district to get a vote in Congress (Biden, Reid and Pelosi) and even statehood (Reid and Pelosi).
Douglass, who advocated for district voting rights himself, would have appreciated that. After all, he once said: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.”