Civil Rights Pioneer and Educator Mary McLeod Bethune Honored in Capitol

The statue was created by artist Nilda Comas, who is the first Hispanic master sculptor to create a statue for the National Statuary Hall State Collection.

Mary McLeod Bethune statue on pedestal
The statue was created by artist Nilda Comas, who is the first Hispanic master sculptor to create a statue for the National Statuary Hall State Collection.

The statue is the first in the National Statuary Hall to represent an African American.

On Wednesday, July 13, 2022, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi unveiled an 11-foot marble statue of educator and civil rights activist Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, representing the state of Florida, in the US Capitol building. It is the first time that an African American has been represented in the National Statuary Hall’s collection, though the Capitol was built using enslaved labor.

Pelosi was joined by two Florida congresswomen, Val Demings and Kathy Castor, both Democrats; and the House Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Florida Senator Marco Rubio (R) for the unveiling.

The pedestal for the statue of Dr. Bethune is inscribed with one of her most famous quotes: “Invest in the human soul. Who knows, it may be a diamond in the rough.”

The statues in the Hall are determined by states, with each state or commonwealth entitled to two statues of its choosing. Congress cannot remove any state’s statue on its own; the choice of what individuals’ images will represent each state must be made by its legislature and governor. A statue of Bethune was designated by the Florida legislature in 2018.

There are only four other African Americans represented in statues elsewhere in the Capitol: Frederick Douglass, Rosa Parks, Sojourner Truth, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Bethune was born in 1875 in Mayesville, South Carolina to parents who had both been enslaved until their emancipation in 1865. She was the only one of 17 siblings to attend a mission school at a time when no public schools existed for Blacks in the South. From there, she went on to Scotia Seminary (now Barber-Scotia College) in Concord, NC, and later taught in Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida.

In 1904 Bethune founded the Daytona Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls, which she energetically promoted among tourists and potential donors to demonstrate what educated African Americans could do. The school later merged with the Cookman Institute, founded in 1872 in Jacksonville and the first institute of higher learning for African Americans in Florida. The new college became the Methodist-affiliated Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach.

Bethune was a well-known civil rights activist who served President Franklin D. Roosevelt as director of Negro Affairs for the National Youth Administration. She was a close friend of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and helped start the United Negro College Fund. She died in 1955.

 

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