For the District of Columbia, deprived of a vote in Congress, the U.S. Capitol remains a bitter place — but city residents finally are getting representation, of a sort.
President Obama signed legislation Thursday giving the District the chance to place a statue in the halls of the Capitol, granting it a privilege already enjoyed by the 50 states, which are allowed to send two statues of local heroes to be displayed somewhere inside the immense complex.
Officials eagerly are preparing to send a statue of famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass, which currently sits in a city office building. He would be just the third black person to make it into the collection of 180 statues and busts in the Capitol.
It’s a small but hard-won victory for the District, which spent several years fighting for its own statue but kept hitting the same wall that has become the bane of its existence: its lack of statehood.
Congress finally stamped approval last week onto legislation that was guided through by Republican Rep. Daniel E. Lungren, Democratic Sen. Charles E. Schumer and Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s nonvoting delegate to Congress.
The legislation doesn’t grant the District the same statuary status as the other states. The city is permitted to place only one statue in the Capitol at a time, while states may place two.
Nor will the Douglass statue get a spot in Statuary Hall, the old House chamber that holds some of the most prominent statues. Instead, Douglass will be placed in the Capitol Visitors Center’s Emancipation Hall, near a bust of Sojourner Truth.
Mrs. Norton, who also has advocated for adding a statue of famed District planner Pierre L’Enfant, vowed she’ll continue fighting for the same statue-related rights the states have.
And there’s still the District’s litany of complaints over its treatment by Congress. With no representatives in the Senate and just one in the House, it is denied a vote on federal legislation and on its own budget, because the Constitution grants Congress jurisdiction over the city.
So, to District officials, the statue is a silver lining in an otherwise dark cloud.
“We’re delighted that the president has signed the legislation, and are proud that our statue of Frederick Douglass will finally have a place in the Capitol,” said Mayor Vincent C. Gray. “While we’re thankful for this victory, our larger quest to secure the same rights that our fellow citizens across the country enjoy will continue.”
States typically rotate statues in and out, celebrating different figures in their history while adhering to the two-statue limit. The new legislation doesn’t appear to give the District that option, instead calling for the Douglass statue to be placed in a “permanent location in the Capitol.”
Still, lawmakers from both parties were pleased that a likeness of Douglass will sit in the Capitol. Mr. Lungren said his figure will “serve as an enduring testament to this nation’s struggle for freedom and equality” and pointed out that Douglass was nominated once for president — by Republicans.
“In addition to rising from slavery to become a great orator and political figure, he has the distinction of being the first African-American whose name was placed in nomination for president by a major political party — the Republican Party,” the California congressman said.