Editors' note: this column is co-authored by Robert Morrison
We had the honor recently of joining with Washington, D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) at a special ceremony in the Capitol honoring the slaves who helped to build that magnificent temple of freedom. We heard the inspiring story of Philip Reid, who was the young black man who knew how to take apart the carefully crated Statue of Freedom that today stands proudly atop the Capitol Dome.
We believe that the impressive room in which we met that hot June afternoon to honor all those enslaved Americans should be re-named for Philip Reid. It’s currently called the Rayburn Room, but “Mr. Sam,” the legendary Speaker from Texas, has an entire House Office Building with hundreds of rooms named after him. It’s no disrespect to Mr. Rayburn to re-name this one important room for Philip Reid.
Now, we read that Del. Norton wants to put up two statues in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall for the District of Columbia. She has nominated the great abolitionist editor and orator, Frederick Douglass. She’s also tapped Maj. Pierre L’Enfant, the French immigrant chosen by George Washington to lay out the grand avenues of our beautiful capital city.
We can well understand why Del. Norton wants to honor these two worthy men. And we can sympathize with her desire to gain more recognition for the good people of the District of Columbia. But we have a quick quiz for all our readers: Who are the two figures who represent your state in Statuary Hall now? Most Americans have no idea.
A much better way to honor Frederick Douglass, we submit, is to place a statue to him in front of Maryland’s historic State House in Annapolis. That scenic and very walkable little city welcomes tens of thousands of tourists each year. The U.S. Naval Academy is there. The State House is home to the oldest continuously used legislative chambers in America.
It was in this capital that Maryland lawmakers debated and ratified the Thirteenth Amendment, even as President Lincoln was walking past their deliberations in early 1865. The Thirteenth Amendment ended slavery in America. It’s what Maryland-born Frederick Douglass had worked to achieve ever since he escaped from slavery.
Today, the place of honor in front of Maryland’s State House is occupied by a statue of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney. Taney was the Maryland jurist who delivered the infamous 1857 Dred Scott decision. In that ruling, Taney wrote “the black man has no rights which the white man is bound to respect.” That ruling is a stain on our nation’s history. It helped to plunge America into the bloody and fratricidal Civil War.
Still, we don’t recommend pitching old Roger B. into the Bay. He’s an inescapable part of the history of the Free State and our country. Happily, there is plenty of room for Taney’s statue outside Maryland’s State Archives. For the good that Taney did, and he did many good things, he can stand there. That building is located on Rowe Boulevard, leading to the State House. Appropriately, it’s across from the State Law Library. (Might we mischievously suggest that Old Roger tiptoe across the boulevard in the middle of the night and get a better understanding of equal justice under law?)
We hope the distinguished Delegate from Washington, D.C., will agree that honoring Frederick Douglass in Annapolis is a much better way to inspire young people in our country. He is less likely to get lost in the crowd there.
Can we persuade Del. Norton to lead the effort to re-name the Rayburn Room for Philip Reid? Without this capable young man, the most impressive 19 1/2-foot statue might never have been raised to its present height. Philip Reid deserves to be honored in the Capitol he did so much to crown with such an impressive symbol.
It was President Lincoln who insisted that the construction of the Capitol dome go forward in the midst of the Civil War. When he took his oath of office for the first time, on March 4, 1861, all the old photos show the dome barely half completed. But when Lincoln stood in front of the Capitol to deliver his magnificent Second Inaugural Address on March 4, 1865, Philip Reid and all his brothers, whose “unrequited toil” had raised that Statue of Freedom atop that Capitol dome, were now free men. Their labors symbolized a “New Birth of Freedom” for our country.
The Philip Reid Room needs to be in the Capitol. The Frederick Douglass statue needs to be in Annapolis. We appeal to Del. Norton to help us advance these projects.
Robert Morrison is a senior fellow for policy studies at the Family Research Council.