WASHINGTON — Frederick Douglass, prominent abolitionist, writer and orator, now towers over a podium in the U.S. Capitol, a speech curled passionately in his hand.
Vice President Joe Biden, House Speaker John Boehner and several key members of Congress sat next to the likeness during a Wednesday ceremony in Emancipation Hall that unveiled the seven-foot bronze statue of a man who escaped the bounds of slavery to start a newspaper, advise President Abraham Lincoln and advance the cause of freedom and equality.
“He set an example for humanity that is unmatched,” said Boehner, a Republican from Ohio. “He is a man for all generations. Today we place him here, in the company of kings and explorers . . . for our leaders to gather around and seek wisdom, for our children to gaze upon and find inspiration.”
Douglass fought for human freedom throughout his life. He pushed literacy as a path to freedom, writing three autobiographies and starting The North Star newspaper. In 1877, he became a United States marshal for the District of Columbia, in 1881 was named recorder of deeds and in 1889 was named the minister and consul general to Haiti.
“It is right and fitting that Frederick Douglass – this extraordinary man, this unflinching voice for freedom, this unyielding advocate for justice – should be honored with an enduring monument,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. “And it is just and proper that more than 600,000 American citizens who reside in the District of Columbia should finally have a statue representing them here in the United States Capitol.”
Reid said Douglass would agree that the residents of the district are no different than those of the states and deserve equal participation in government. D.C. residents vote in presidential elections; they don't, however, have a voting member representing them in Congress.
“There is no better historical figure to represent the District of Columbia than Frederick Douglass, one of the first and finest voices for equality for its residents,” Reid said.
Douglass’ great-great-granddaughter Nettie Washington Douglass attended the ceremony. Washington Douglass, also the great-granddaughter of Booker T. Washington, founded Frederick Douglas Family Initiatives with the goal of advancing equality and education.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called Douglass “the consummate self-made man.” Douglass taught himself to write, a talent essential to his advocacy. McConnell also touted his role in advising Lincoln on the treatment of free slaves and his involvement in the Republican Party of the time.
Biden quickly made light of the comments in his speech.
“Mitch, I agree with you,” Biden said in reference to McConnell’s speech. “Frederick Douglass was a great Republican, and probably my favorite Republican.”
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., reminded the crowd of Douglass’ work in his state publishing The North Star, which at the time was the largest African-American newspaper in the country. He also reminded the crowd of Douglass’ work with the women’s right movement in Rochester at that time.
Sculptor Steven Weitzman’s portrayal of Douglass becomes one of four statues honoring African-Americans in the Capitol, alongside Martin Luther King Jr., Sojourner Truth and Rosa Parks.
“For too long, the Capitol collection of statues has failed to include courageous African-Americans who inspired some of the most important movements in the nation’s and the world’s history,” Schumer said. “The installation of this statue in a place named Emancipation Hall is just one step toward correcting that glaring omission.”