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Commentary
Statues can resonate as symbols
(Published May 1, 2006)

By BILL MOSLEY

While much of the quest for democracy for the District of Columbia has centered around the so-called "big" issues – voting representation in Congress, local control of local budgets and legislation, fair compensation for the burden of the federal presence, and the like – we shouldn’t overlook the importance of seeking symbolic victories along the way to the big prizes. While we are fighting for full citizenship, we mustn’t minimize the fight for respect – to demand that we at least be treated as full citizens and not be required to, metaphorically speaking, sit in the back of the bus until the struggle is fully won.

In past columns I’ve written about some of the slights and insults that the District has endured as a result of its unique and peculiar status – not a state but not really anything else either, a political ward of Congress that nevertheless raises most of its own local revenues and, unlike the offshore U.S. territories, is subject to federal income taxes. Because the United States was conceived as a federation of states, the District often finds itself on the outside looking in. When the government began issuing quarters commemorating each state, the District was given no quarter (pun intended). In an even more egregious insult, Union Station – our own hometown train station – flew the flags of each state but not that of the District until two years ago, and only after pressure from local citizens.

Another longstanding sore spot has been Statuary Hall. Located in the U.S. Capitol, Statuary Hall displays the statues of two prominent historical figures from each state. The District, not being a state, is not represented, notwithstanding its rich history and abundance of important and accomplished citizens.

There is at last an effort to correct this oversight. The D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities recently solicited nominations for prominent D.C. residents of the past to be immortalized in sculpture, with the intent of placing the statues in Statuary Hall – someday. Congress has yet to act on legislation introduced by D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton to allow the two D.C. submissions into the hall. So the sculptures will at first reside in the Wilson Building, playing the role of immobile lobbyists – glowering down Pennsylvania Avenue at the legislators barring their entrance to the Capitol while they wait for the call to leave the plantation fields and enter the big house.

The commission recently solicited nominations from the public for the two representatives from D.C.’s history to be immortalized in stone. The ballot posted on the commission’s Web site included names that should be familiar to most D.C. residents, including abolitionist and author Frederick Douglass (who also was a member of the old D.C. Legislative Assembly); composer Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington; Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham; and Walter Washington, the District’s first mayor under home rule. Some of the names are less familiar, such as that of Robert Brent, the first appointed mayor of Washington City in the early 1800s, and Alethia Browning Tanner, a one-time slave who purchased her own freedom and that of 18 relatives. Fortunately, the commission allowed for write-ins, as students of D.C. history could identify a number of prominent names not appearing on the published ballot: early statehood advocates Julius Hobson and Josephine Butler; Alexander Shepherd, public works czar during the 1871-74 territorial period; poet Paul Dunbar; and actress Helen Hayes.

Whomever the commission chooses (deadline for nominations was April 28), the two statues – whether standing in the Wilson Building or the Capitol – could become powerful symbols of the District as a community, as distinct from Washington the federal city. D.C. residents have hungered for such civic symbols, one reason the vintage 1931 D.C. War Memorial on the National Mall has been "rediscovered" as a local treasure, and why the return of the mayor and D.C. City Council to the historic Wilson Building in 2001 was greeted with such fanfare and pride.

Ideas, arguments, pamphlets and newspaper columns have their role in advancing the cause of full democracy for the District. But tangible symbols such as statues, monuments and buildings can resonate at a deep level in ways that words often cannot. So let’s cheer on the Arts and Humanities Commission as it moves ahead -- and let’s all start looking forward to the unveilings.

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Mosley is a member of the Stand Up! For Democracy in D.C. Coalition. Contact him at billmosley@comcast.net or (202) 232-2500 ext. 3.

Copyright 2006 The Common Denominator