By Michael Touma
Standing in National Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol Building, visitors are taken on a journey through 250 years of American history. While some of the room’s figures, like Rosa Parks and Thomas Edison, exemplify the nation’s diverse and exemplary history, others representing a darker side of the past remain.
Statues of Confederates and white supremacists in the Hall and elsewhere in the Capitol have not surrendered to widespread public pressure to remove them — even after the House passed legislation in June to do so.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) is leading a group of Democrats — including Maryland’s Democratic House members — to renew efforts to get the Senate to follow the House.
“The names and faces of those who championed slavery, sedition, and segregation have no place in this temple of American freedom and democracy,” Hoyer and the other Democrats said in a Sept. 24 letter to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York). “These sacred spaces should be reserved for those we revere: honorable Americans of whose deeds and legacies we can all be proud.”
Hoyer and 17 other Democrats sponsored the legislation passed by the House to remove the bust of Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney from the Capitol and replace it with a bust of Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall. The measure also targets 13 other Confederate politicians and soldiers as well as white supremacists.
The bill’s co-sponsors included Maryland Democratic Reps. Anthony Brown, Kweisi Mfume, Jamie Raskin, Dutch Ruppersberger, John Sarbanes, and David Trone. All also were on the letter to Schumer.
Taney, a Maryland native and former slave owner, wrote the majority opinion in Dred Scott v. Sandford in 1857, contending that blacks, whether they were enslaved or free, could not sue in a court because they were not American citizens; he also said Congress couldn’t free slaves in U.S. territories.
“The Dred Scott decision was a blot on our history and represents the tragic legacy of slavery and racism that should not be celebrated in our country,” Hoyer said in a statement. “In my home state of Maryland, a statue of Chief Justice Taney was removed from the grounds of the State House, and it’s past time that we follow suit in the U.S. Capitol.”
Each state is allowed two statues in the Capitol to honor people who have made a significant impact in that state’s and nation’s history.
But among the figures immortalized in Statuary Hall is Confederate President Jefferson Davis of Mississippi. His vice president, Alexander Hamilton Stephens of Georgia, is standing nearby.
A bust of Taney stands in the Capitol’s Old Senate Chamber, later used by the Supreme Court until 1935.
Not only do these statues symbolize divisive times in U.S. history, but also they stand as barriers to healing racial and political divisions, lawmakers said.
“On January 6th, we experienced the divisiveness of Confederate battle flags being flown inside the U.S. Capitol,” House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-South Carolina, said in a statement. “Yet there are still vestiges that remain in this sacred building that glorify people and a movement that embraced that flag and sought to divide and destroy our great country.”
Removing the objectionable statues will “demonstrate that as Americans we do not celebrate those who seek to divide us,” Clyburn said.
Hoyer’s bill is part of a host of efforts around the nation, especially in the South, to remove the statues of Confederate and segregationist figures in state capitals and other public spaces.
The decision to remove the Taney statue from the Maryland State House “reflects our growth as a state as we have confronted the most difficult parts of our history,” Hoyer said.
The Maryland congressman won House passage of his statue bill in July 2020, but it was never considered by the Senate, then controlled by the Republicans.
This time around in the House, 218 Democrats and 67 Republicans voted in favor of the bill, while 120 GOP lawmakers voted against it.
“The House has now advanced our legislation twice,” Hoyer wrote to Schumer. “We would hope that the Senate would now move this legislation. Every moment we delay is a missed opportunity to correct historical wrongs.”
Schumer’s office did not respond to a request for comment.