Editorial

EDITORIAL: Tear Them Down, Build Them Up!

A bill introduced a year ago by Ward 5 Council member Kenyan McDuffie and others would lay the groundwork for more statues and monuments to be built in the District honoring women and African Americans, particularly those who are natives of the District. Today, there are approximately 150 statues in the nation’s capital, with only one honoring an African-American woman — Mary McLeod Bethune — and less than a dozen honoring African-American men.

The Diverse Washingtonians Commemorative Works Amendment Act of 2019 (Bill 23-233) would allow the Council or any other private entity to sponsor a commemorative work on public space. It would require the Commemorative Works Committee to commission such works to have a monument erected in each Ward by a specific date. Additionally, accompanying legislation would establish an advisory commission to study monuments, markers and symbols throughout the District to assess their cultural and historical appropriateness.

At a public hearing held in late January, former Council member Frank Smith, founder and director of the Civil War Memorial and Museum in Northwest, reinforced the economic benefit to the City that monuments in neighborhoods have. “People will come and see the White House and other downtown sites,” he said, “but it’s the memorials off the beaten path that keep them here longer.”

Chairman Phil Mendelson talked about the legislation at various Black History events in February while McDuffie said at the hearing that the bill is an important attempt to “reconcile symbols and monuments that often have complicated and blatantly racist histories behind them.”

On the other hand, they also may aim to bring attention and much-needed recognition to the long line of native Washingtonians who have made cultural and historic contributions,” he said.

To date, the only monument in the District dedicated to an African-American native Washingtonian is Duke Ellington. Other monuments devoted to African Americans include Dr. Carter G. Woodson, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Josh Gibson of the Homestead Grays and busts of A. Philip Randolph and Sojourner Truth, to name a few. A statue honoring Mayor for Life Marion Barry was dedicated outside of the John H. Wilson Building on Pennsylvania Avenue NW in 2018.

The proposed legislation has not passed although the period for public comment has expired. Still, we’re encouraged that the Council will eventually approve the bill upon which we expect to see monuments erected throughout the District honoring the men and women who dedicated their lives to making the District a great place to live. Their contributions must not be forgotten.

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