Nigel Cook/News-Journal/USA TODAY NETWORK via Reuters Co
Educator and civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune made history Wednesday as the first black person to have a state-commissioned statue in the Statuary Hall of the US Capitol, when her statue replaced that of a Confederate general.
Bethune, the daughter of former slaves, was an influential educator and activist who… among his many achievements — founded the National Council of Negro Women, advised several US presidents, and created a boarding school for black boys that would later become Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach.
The larger-than-life statue had been on display in his home state of Florida since October 2021, before traveling to Washington, DC. It was formally inaugurated in a ceremony led by the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, and in which many of the legislators and activists participated. who fought and raised funds for years to make the moment possible.
Democratic US Representative from Florida Kathy Castor said at the ceremony that Bethune embodies all the values the state, the first to be represented by a black American at National Statuary Hall, cherishes, from industriousness to thirst for education and the desire to build peace. .
“We lifted her up today at a time of competing ideologies to help heal and unify through her example, because she, too, lived through a time of division, but was determined to stand up to dissenting voices, including the Ku Klux Klan, to do what many said could not be done,” Castor said, adding that he hopes the Bethune statue will serve as a symbol of hope, justice and love for America and all humanity.
The 11-foot statue, which weighs more than 6,000 pounds, was carved from the largest (and last) piece of marble for statues from Michelangelo’s quarry in Italy. It was created by the artist Nilda Comas, who was chosen among 1,600 applicants and is the first Hispanic master sculptor to create a statue for the National Statuary Hall State Collection.
It is a historic addition to the famous collection, which followed a long process and will probably not be the last such exchange.
A symbolic statue for an American icon
With a subject and sculptor secured, the creation of the actual statue involved significant research and fundraising efforts.
The Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune Fund has spent years raising private funds for a marble statue for the Capitol, as well as another statue for a local park, a documentary feature film, and a K-12 curriculum module.
The fund’s president, Nancy Lohman, said at the opening ceremony that nearly 500 donors and other advocates had participated in the effort over the past four years.
Bob Lloyd, the fund’s board treasurer, told CNN last fall that the nonprofit had raised about $800,000 in private donations. That money went toward the marble statue and a bronze replica that have been slated for a new riverfront park in Daytona Beach.
Before beginning to sculpt, Comas did intensive research at state and national archives, the State Archives of Florida, and Bethune-Cookman University.
At the Florida inauguration last fall, he called the four-year process “a beautiful journey.”
“I just fell in love with Dr. Bethune and everything she did,” Comas said, according to WESH, Orlando NBC affiliate.
The statue depicts Bethune in a cap and gown and a pearl necklace, holding a black rose in one hand and a cane in the other. She is standing in front of a stack of books, with a warm smile and what a a local reporter described as eyes that “capture the wisdom [and] kindness.”
The base of the pedestal is inscribed with his name, home state, dates of birth and death, as well as one of his most famous quotes: “Invest in the human soul. Who knows, it could be a diamond in the rough.”
Gordon Parks/Library of Congress
Each of these symbols speaks to an element of Bethune’s life and legacy, explains the nonprofit organization.
The cap and gown represent her lifelong commitment to education, and the stack of books symbolizes her focus on expanding education for women and people of color specifically. The spines bear words from one of her famous writings, her last will and testament: love, faith, racial dignity, courage, peace, and “thirst for education.”
Bethune collected walking sticks during his lifetime and reportedly regarded them as symbols of refinement and leadership. The cane depicted in the statue is inspired by a gift he received from President Franklin Roosevelt, who did you work closely with. Appointed to the National Youth Administration in 1936, she became the organization’s director of black affairs and served as the only female member of Roosevelt’s “Negro Cabinet.”
The black rose represents Bethune’s work in education, as well as her belief that “loving your neighbor” required interracial, interfaith and international brotherhood, according to the nonprofit organization.
“Although there is no species of flower called a ‘black rose,’ Dr. Bethune was captivated by the beauty of a rose with a particularly dark hue,” he explained. “These dark roses instantly became his favorites. From then on, he referred to his pupils as his ‘black roses.'”
History many years in the making
The Capitol’s Statuary Hall collection features two statues from each of the 50 states, which have been allowed to replace existing statues since 2000 (with the approval of their legislature and governor). None of those new additions represented African Americans, however, as of Wednesday.
Florida first moved to replace one of its statues, honoring Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith, in 2016. It was removed from capitol last september.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis officially applied for in 2019 — on the 144th anniversary of Bethune’s birthday — to represent Florida in the national statue collection.
“Dr. Bethune takes the place of an obscure Confederate general who has represented Florida in the state collection since 1922 and will be one of the few women to represent a state in the collection of 100 statues,” Castor said.
Florida is not the only state to make such a change. virginia is replacing his statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee with civil rights icon Barbara Johns, while Arkansas is in the works to replace its two statues with depictions of civil rights leader Daisy Bates and country legend Johnny Cash. And there are ongoing efforts by some legislators to increase the number of women represented on Capitol Hill and remove confederate statues from the screen.
Nine statues representing Confederate generals remain on display at the Capitol, according to the Washington Postand the House of Representatives voted along party lines last June to remove them from public display.
There are only four other black Americans represented in statues in the entire Capitol (and about a dozen more in paintings and murals): Frederick Douglass, rose parksSojourner Truth and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.