D.C. Council member Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5) wants to remember the outstanding work and lives of native Washingtonians of color by erecting statutes of them in each ward in the city.

D.C. Council memeber Kenyan McDuffie. (Courtesy Photo)

On Sept. 15, McDuffie introduced the “Charles Hamilton Houston and Other Diverse Washingtonians Commemorative Works Amendment Act of 2017” and announced that a hearing on the legislation is scheduled for Oct. 5. The bill will be considered by the Committee of the Whole chaired by D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D).

“There are so many statutes on the National Mall and in D.C. that don’t reflect the diversity of the city and the U.S.,” McDuffie told the AFRO. He said that the time to author and push this bill is now “given how divisive our politics are right now with the president using inflammatory language” in the country’s discourse and the ongoing debate over Confederate statutes.

The proposed bill would instruct the Commemorative Works Committee to supervise the statute set-up and it would allow the council to sponsor a commemorative work on public space in the city. The bill would have the committee name eight honorees with each ward having one.

The honorees would be recommended by residents, industry professionals, academic professionals, and cultural organizations in each ward, according to the bill. The legislation requires a written plan to be submitted to the D.C. Council for review and approval within 60 days after the bill becomes a law.

The bill would require a statute in each ward by 2021. In addition, the legislation would make the inaugural statute sponsored by the council as a memorial to Charles Hamilton Houston.

Houston was born in the District in 1895 to a prominent Black middle-class family and graduated from Dunbar High School. He graduated as the valedictorian at Amherst College in Massachusetts in 1915, served in World War 1, and came back to the District to teach English at Howard University.

Houston went on to law school at Harvard University where he became the first Black to be on the editorial board of its law review and graduated with honors in 1923. He eventually became the vice dean and then dean of the Howard University School of Law where he taught and mentored future U.S. Associate Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

Houston left the law school to become a litigator for the NAACP and is credited for laying the legal ground work in dismantling legal segregation in the U.S. He died of a heart attack in 1950.

Houston was a co-founder of the predominantly Black National Bar Association. McDuffie said it is only right that the District give Houston his due.

“He doesn’t get the recognition that he deserves,” the council member said. “Houston laid the legal framework for Thurgood Marshall to end segregation.”

In the District, there is a Charles H. Houston Elementary School in Northeast and there is a space at the Howard University School of Law named in his honor.

McDuffie’s bill could, as an example, honor native Washingtonians who have achieved tremendous success such as physician Charles Drew, actress Helen Hayes, poet-scholar Sterling Brown, and former senator Edward Brooke. Sandra Seegars, a Ward 8 resident and political activist, likes the spirit of McDuffie’s legislation but has a problem with it. “The bill only pays for statutes for people born in D.C. but what about people who have lived here a long time, like 20 or 30 years,” Seegars told the AFRO. “An excellent example of that is Marion Barry. He wasn’t born here but made great contributions to the city.

“His legislation shouldn’t be specific to native Washingtonians only.”

McDuffie said he fully supports the work of the Barry Commission that has proposed ways to honor the late four-term District mayor and D.C. council member, which includes a statute of his likeness in the John A. Wilson Building. In response to Seegars, McDuffie said his bill deals only with those outstanding native Washingtonians and noted there are other processes for non-natives to be remembered. “There is nothing in existing law for people like Dr. Dorothy Height and Frederick Douglass to be recognized in statute,” he said.

McDuffie said the Commemorative Works Committee will manage the program and be responsible for the cost.

D.C. Council member Robert White (D-At Large), a native Washingtonian, is the co-sponsor of the bill and 10 other council members have indicated their support including Trayon White (D-Ward 8), Vincent Gray (D-Ward 7), Anita Bonds (D-At Large), David Grosso (I-At Large), and Brandon Todd (D-Ward 4).

McDuffie said it is important for District youth to see noted late residents memorialized. “Young people should be able to see themselves in any of the heroes we honor,” he said.