More than 150 years after racist mobs chased him from Tremont Temple, Frederick Douglass was set to make his permanent return to Boston, as community activists lobbied the city’s Art Commission for a statue immortalizing the abolitionist in Roxbury.
But even as statues of Douglass’s colleagues William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips loom in Back Bay, community groups and their benefactors say they have struggled to gain approval from the city’s review board for public art.
Supporters of the Douglass statue are set to meet again Wednesday with the Boston Art Commission at City Hall.
The Friends of Frederick Douglass and their principal financial backer, the Edward Ingersoll Browne Fund, picked Frederick Douglass Peace Garden in Roxbury as the site for the statue. They chose sculptor Mario Chiodo, and shared a design with the Art Commission, they said.
Then, the group said it received a rejection letter in August from Boston Art Commission director Karin Goodfellow.
In a statement to the Globe, Goodfellow said the commission ended the project because backers did not have a location secured.
But in a letter to sculpture supporters, the commission said it was not supporting the memorial because it wanted a redesign of the sculpture, in addition to a new site.
“We believe a more contemporary solution to represent this historical figure is necessary,” the Art Commission letter says.
Goodfellow did not return Globe requests for an interview.
Chantal Charles of the Browne Fund provided the Globe with a 2009 letter to the city from the owner of the Frederick Douglass Peace Garden — the Boston Redevelopment Authority.
In that letter, the BRA said it supported the proposal for a statue at the site and pledged to work with the Art Commission to ensure approval of the sculpture. A BRA representative confirmed to the Globe on Tuesday that the agency still owns the Douglass Peace Garden, but the spokesman said he was unfamiliar with the statue project.
The Art Commission's website shows Frederick Douglass Peace Garden as the site for the sculpture.
“I just want to get this done,” Charles said. “The park is already called Frederick Douglass Peace Park, it’s the perfect location. What’s stopping us right now is the Art Commission.”
Louis Elisa, president of the Garrison Trotter Neighborhood Association in Roxbury, has been a champion of putting the memorial in the peace park.
“The Art Commission even feigned ignorance, acting like they didn’t know who Frederick Douglass was,” Elisa said. “We’re trying to keep people aware that the African-American community is an important part of Boston.”
Douglass was not born in Boston, but spent significant time in New England after escaping enslavement in the late 1830s.
The mob incident at Tremont Temple remains infamous, but Douglass also enjoyed memorable success in the Boston area, according to reports from the time.
In 1847, Douglass, Garrison, and Phillips entered to a roaring crowd at the Belknap Street Church in Boston, where Douglass was the honoree. And just after the Tremont Temple incident, Douglass gave his famous “Plea for Free Speech,” in which he challenged the city of Boston to extend to all people its rich heritage of advocating for personal liberty.
“The mortifying and disgraceful fact stares us in the face, that though Faneuil Hall and Bunker Hill Monument stand, freedom of speech is struck down,” Douglass said in 1860. “Until [civil rights] is accorded to the humblest as freely as to the most exalted citizen, the government of Boston is but an empty name, and its freedom a mockery.”
Murray Dewart, a Boston sculptor, supports the statue and worked with the artist to ensure it can be installed anywhere, regardless of the commission’s decision.
Dewart said he believes the Art Commission will eventually approve a Douglass statue somewhere in the city — if the political will is there.
Elisa said he questions whether that will exists.
Elisa said he lobbied City Councilor Charles C. Yancey for a Martin Luther King Jr. statue at Boston City Hall, beginning in 2002.
That statue was not approved by the Art Commission, although the board soon allowed a bronze figure of Bill Russell, the Celtics great.
“I worked on the Dr. King statue for five years, and we were stalled in every direction,” Elisa said.
Charles, of the Browne Fund, said she plans to resume the call for the Art Commission to approve the Douglass statue at the Peace Garden site, starting at Wednesday’s meeting.
When asked whether the Browne Fund was prepared to move the proposed statue’s location, Charles said “no way.”
The Art Commission “has to give me a good explanation why this cannot proceed at this location with this design,” Charles said. “And they don’t have one.”