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Frederick Douglass Ceremony Brings Pomp, Politics

The unveiling of the Frederick Douglass statue in the Capitol on Wednesday drew a rich cross-section of American society as dignitaries and descendants gathered to commemorate the storied abolitionist’s legacy, as well as throw in a little politicking.

“Frederick Douglass is a great Republican, and one of my favorite Republicans,” Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. said to laughter from an estimated audience of 600 guests gathered in Emancipation Hall.

“Congratulations. This is your day,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said to Del. Eleanor Norton Holmes, D-D.C., who helped shepherd the seven-year journey of the statue to its unveiling.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., used his remarks to call for D.C. statehood. “The District deserves statehood. And Congress should act to grant it. This was a cause close to Frederick Douglass’ heart. Although Mr. Douglass championed many causes — the abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage among them — he was also an unwavering advocate for equal representation for residents of the District of Columbia,” Reid said.

Republicans were eager to remind attendees that Douglass was a member of their party. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, pointed out Douglass’ place in the Grand Old Party. Robert Turner II, the first openly gay African-American man to serve as executive director of the D.C. Republican Party, carried a handful of pins that commemorated Douglass’ party affiliation.

Because its subject is known as a champion of abolitionism, women’s suffrage and liberty, the Douglass statue celebrated in the Capitol on Wednesday represents more than just the partisan disagreements of today’s divided deliberative bodies.

“Before it was cool to do it, [Douglass] was talking about equality for all, and how everybody should be able to have a chance and an opportunity to advance himself in life,” Turner said.

The statue, which is more than 7 feet tall, depicts Douglass standing beside a podium, clenching a fistful of paper and scowling into the distance. The bronze sculpture towered behind the high-ranking members of Congress and the vice president during each dignitary’s speech.

It comes to Emancipation Hall on the heels of the Rosa Parks statue, which was dedicated in February.

Elaine Steele, co-founder of the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development, participated in that earlier ceremony and said she was invited back to Washington for Wednesday’s event.

“We, our country, is blessed that this is coming about at this time,” Steele said.

Guests representing the travails and legacy of Douglass’ life attended the event, as well as schoolchildren from Sacred Heart Catholic School in Northwest D.C., members of the Congressional Black Caucus, and Nettle Washington Douglass, a descendant of both Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass.

Even a contingent from the U.S. Marshals Service came to honor their predecessor, who was appointed to the service in 1877.

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