Bust of Frederick Douglass unveiled in Senate chamber

Massachusetts Statehouse. Photo Courtesy of Nidavirani via Wikimedia Commons.

By Maya Shavit

Boston University News Service

Until this week, every bust in the Massachusetts State House was of a White man. Now, the Massachusetts Senate has added the first state-commissioned bust of a Black person, civil rights activist Frederick Douglass.

“We are proud to honor a man who left an indelible mark on our Commonwealth and nation. Frederick Douglass takes his rightful place as a founding father,” said Senate President Karen Spilka of Ashland.

The Douglass bust is the first to be added to the Senate chamber’s permanent collection since 1898. It now it sits in an alcove near his quote — “Truth, justice, liberty, and humanity will ultimately prevail” — which adorns the chamber.

Douglass’s likeness has appeared in the building before, albeit temporarily. In 2019, a replica of a separate bust was on display as part of a loan from Boston’s Museum of African American History.

Spilka said she has made it a priority to diversify the State House’s art collection. Her office includes a collection of images of influential Massachusetts women and Black men, officials said.

“The walls of this building honor people who are predominantly white, leaving out the stories of countless men and women of color who have led movements,” said Spilka.

Douglass was originally from Maryland, but made New Bedford his home after escaping slavery. He fought for civil rights on Beacon Hill more than once, coming before state legislators to advocate in the Senate chamber for his community nearly 130 years before his bust’s unveiling in the same room.

Douglass was only 400 yards down the street from the State House when he heard about Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, said Spilka.

“Aside from the fact that he was self-taught, when asked how you accounted for his education, he replied ‘I owe my education to the Massachusetts school of abolition,’” said L’Merchie Frazier, executive director of creative and strategic partnerships at SPOKE Art and a member of the State House Art Commission.

Douglass’s bust fills one of two empty spaces in the Senate chamber. The other empty pedestal is reportedly intended for a woman leader.

The Douglass sculpture was originally produced by Lloyd Lillie for the Seneca Falls Museum, according to Lillie’s daughter, Nina Lillie LeDoyt.

“It is fitting that this unveiling takes place today, the day he celebrated his birth, in a city with a woman mayor in a state with a woman governor and a woman lieutenant governor and a woman as president of the Senate,” said Noelle Trent, president of Boston’s Museum of African American History.

This story originally appeared in the CommonWealth Beacon.

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