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Wednesday afternoon, Mary McLeod Bethune became the first Black person elevated by a state to be recognized in the Capitol’s National Statuary Hall.
The Civil Rights leader and trailblazing educator is most notably remembered for the founding of what is now known as Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Florida. Bethune-Cookman was started as an all-girls school in 1904.
On Wednesday, in front of members of Congress and members of Florida’s congressional delegation, Bethune’s white marble statue was unveiled at the Capitol’s Statuary Hall.
Each state has two statues of “deceased persons who have been citizens thereof, and illustrious for their historic renown or for distinguished civic or military services.”
“To have her statue here is quite phenomenal, absolutely, as a reminder of what our democracy is about,” said granddaughter Evelyn Bethune.
Mary McLeod Bethune honored at the highest level: the Capitol’s Statuary Hall
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. hosted the unveiling of her statue.
Bethune was born in South Carolina in 1875, and was one of the founders of the United Negro College Fund, a predominant financial backbone for Black universities nationwide.
Bethune led the “Black Cabinet” of President Franklin D. Roosevelt as the highest-ranking Black government official, pushing him to diversify the defense industry and later helping draft President Harry Truman’s executive order desegregating the armed forces, said Ashley Robertson Preston at Howard University, a Bethune biographer.
“She will now represent the state of Florida, and she will be the first African American to have a state-commissioned statue in that hall,” Preston said.
The white marble statue shows Bethune in academic robes, holding a black rose. She endearingly called her students “black roses,” Preston said, after visiting a garden in Europe where she saw black roses growing among the yellows and reds.
Books stacked at the statue’s feet are inscribed with some of the core values from her last will and testament: love, hope, faith, racial dignity, a thirst for education, courage and peace.
Bethune’s statue replaced the statue of Edmund Kirby Smith, one of the last Confederate generals to surrender after the Civil War. A grassroots campaign succeeded last year in removing Smith’s statue.