Visitors to Washington could be forgiven for breezing past an empty pedestal tucked between two nondescript buildings near the Judiciary Square Metro station, but for those who live and work nearby, it’s hard to miss.
The statue of Albert Pike, which stood right outside the Metropolitan Police Department headquarters, was defaced, torn down and lit ablaze during this summer’s protests against racial injustice.
Now the pedestal has sat vacant for five months, waiting on its fate. City leaders want to remove the monument altogether, but instead it’s stuck in limbo, caught up in the same slow-motion fight between local and federal control that’s always unfolding in the nation’s capital.
Dedicated in 1901, the statue celebrates a man who was an author, a poet, an orator and a philanthropist, according to some of the labels inscribed on its granite base.
Yes, Pike was a high-ranking Masonic official. But he was also a racist Confederate Civil War general who defended slavery and wrote a militant variation of “Dixie.”
He used to look down on this small patch of grass from a height of nearly 30 feet, locks of metal hair flowing over his shoulders and from his chin. Styled as a man of learning rather than a soldier, he grasped a book in one hand and held out the other, reaching vaguely into the air.
So where is he now?
“The Albert Pike statue is currently in a National Park Service storage facility while the damage is assessed,” NPS spokesman Mike Litterst said in an email this month. “There is no timetable yet for its return.”
The hulking bronze remains locked away in storage. Now that it’s gone from downtown, officials in the city want to keep it that way.
Removing Pike from the D.C. landscape has long been a goal, but the stumbling block is the federal government.
Congress authorized the statue in 1898, allowing the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry to install it in Washington and present it “to the people of the United States.” It sits on federal land, on one of the many bits that pockmark the city. At least a quarter of all acreage in D.C. is federally controlled.
Putting up statues is one thing. Taking them down is another, as Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton has found. When the city’s lone representative in Congress introduced legislation to remove Pike in 2017, amid a national outcry over white supremacist rallies and Confederate symbols, the bill went nowhere in the House.
She tried again last year, noting once more that pretty much everyone close to the issue supports the statue’s removal, from D.C.’s mayor and city council to the Masons themselves.
This time she got a markup, and her bill was reported out of the Natural Resources Committee this fall, with added language that would direct the Interior Department to donate the statue to a museum or similar place to “ensure its preservation and interpretation in an indoor setting.”
“I can think of no more valuable way to teach the history of that period in our country,” Norton said in a phone interview.
Time is running out for further action this term, but as the current Congress and the Trump era come to an end, Norton is feeling hopeful.
“Republicans didn’t see any reason to vote against the bill to remove a statute,” she said of her measure’s recent journey through the committee stage, where members waved it through by voice vote.
Before he crashed down from his pedestal, Pike cut a strange figure in Washington. His monument is the only one in the city to honor a Confederate — except, of course, the 11 standing tall inside the Capitol. (Donated to the National Statuary Hall Collection by the states they called home, those men include Mississippi’s 1931 addition of Jefferson Davis and Georgia’s 1927 contribution of Alexander Stephens, the failed president and vice president of the Confederate States of America.)
Some within the Masonic movement still revere Pike and his 1871 book “Morals and Dogma.” Yet leaders of the Scottish Rite headquartered in D.C. have distanced themselves from the monument. “The statue has belonged to the people since we gave it to them,” they said in a June statement.
Norton put it this way: “I don’t think there’s anybody who’s going to stand up for Pike.”
“I think most historians would agree,” she said. “It represents a man who had the worst reputation.”
For a period this summer, the statue’s most vehement defender was President Donald Trump.
Turning Pike into a rallying cry, the president tweeted, “The D.C. Police are not doing their job as they watch a statue be ripped down & burn … A disgrace to our Country!” His words brought national attention to the crowd who gathered on June 19, pulling on ropes around Pike until he fell, hitting the ground with a wet thud.
“No justice, no peace,” protesters chanted on that Juneteenth night, captured on video as flames engulfed the toppled statue.
While the crowd was demanding racial justice, not railing against Congress and the long-simmering tension in D.C. between local and federal power, the two issues have everything to do with one another, some say.
“What really frustrates us is the lack of control over our own affairs, and 2020 and the problems associated with it have made that obnoxiously clear,” said Paul Strauss, one of Washington’s shadow senators, elected officials who advocate for D.C. statehood. “Being forced to keep a Confederate statue in a majority-minority city adds insult to injury.”
The summer is over, and the election and surge in coronavirus cases has turned attention elsewhere. Near Judiciary Square, the monument still stands like a message cut in half, the pedestal empty except for a second bronze figure, the goddess of Freemasonry that for more than a century sat at Pike’s feet.