Nigel Cook / News-Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK via Reuters Co
Educator and civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune will soon make history as the first black person to have a state-appointed statue in the U.S. Capitols Statuary Hall when her statue replaces the statue of a Confederate general.
It is a milestone many years along the way. So what will the groundbreaking statue really look like?
Members of the public can now see for themselves after the marble figure with a larger life than was unveiled in Bethune’s home state of Florida earlier this week. It will remain on display in Daytona Beach for several months before taking its place in the country’s capital in early 2022, according to U.S. Representative Kathy Castor.
Bethune, daughter of former slaves, was an influential educator and activist who – among her many accomplishments -Founded the National Council of Negro Women, advised several U.S. presidents, and established a boarding school for black children that would later become Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach.
The 11-foot statue, which weighs more than 6,000 lbs., Was sculpted out of the largest (and last) piece of statue marble from Michelangelo’s quarry in Italy. It was created by artist Nilda Comas, who was chosen from an area of 1,600 applicants and is first Spanish master sculptor to create a statue for the National Statuary Hall State Collection.
Floridians can see the statue in person and learn more about Bethune’s life at a free exhibit to be held at Daytona State College’s News-Journal Center in early December.
“Dr. Bethune embodies the best of Sunshine State. Floridians and all Americans can be very proud to be represented by the great educator and civil rights icon,” Castor said. “I’m glad she’s rightly being recognized here in Florida before traveling to her place of honor and recognition throughout America in the American capital.”
A symbolic statue of an American icon
With a subject and a sculptor secured, the creation of the actual statue involved significant fundraising and research efforts.
That Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune Project has spent years raising private funds for a marble statue for the Capitol as well as another statue for a local park, a lengthy documentary and a K-12 syllabus module.
Bob Lloyd, the fund’s board treasurer, told CNN that the nonprofit organization had raised about $ 800,000 in private donations. This money went to the marble statue and a copy of bronze destined for a new park by the river in Daytona Beach.
Before she began sculpting, Coma conducted intensive research on state and national archives, the State of Florida Archives and Bethune-Cookman University.
At Monday’s unveiling, she called the four-year process “a beautiful journey.”
“I just fell in love with Dr. Bethune and everything she did,” Comas said Orlando NBC affiliated with WESH.
The statue depicts Bethune wearing a cap and dress and a pearl necklace holding a black rose in one hand and a cane in the other. She stands in front of a stack of books, with a warm smile and whatnot a local reporter described as eyes that “capture wisdom [and] kindness.”
The bottom of the shelf is inscribed with her name, her homeland, dates of birth and death, as well as one of her most famous quotes: “Invest in the human soul. Who knows, it may be a diamond in the rough.”
Gordon Parks / Library of Congress
These symbols each speak to an element of Bethune’s life and heritage, explains the nonprofit.
The hood and dress 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 carry words from her one of her famous writings, her last will and testament: love, faith, racial dignity, courage, peace and “thirst for education”.
Bethune collected walking sticks over the course of his life, reportedly seeing them as symbols of refinement and leadership. The cane depicted in the statue is modeled after a gift she received from President Franklin Roosevelt, with whom she worked closely. He appointed her to the National Youth Administration in 1936, became the organization’s director of negro affairs, and served as the sole female member of Roosevelt’s “Black Cabinet.”
The black rose represents Bethune’s work in education, as well as her belief that “loving your neighbor” required races, interfaith and international brotherhood, according to nonprofit.
“Although there is no flower species called a ‘black rose’, Dr. Bethune was captivated by the beauty of a rose with a particularly dark hue,” it explained. “These dark roses instantly became her favorite. After that, she referred to her students as her ‘black roses’.”
History many years along the way
The Capitol’s Statuary Hall collection contains two statues from each of the 50 states.
Florida first moved to replace one of its statues, honoring Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith, in 2016. It was removed from the Capitol just last month.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis officially requested in 2019 – on the 144th anniversary of Bethune’s birthday – that she represents Florida in the National Status Collection.
“Dr. Bethune replaces an obscure Confederate general who has represented Florida in the state assembly since 1922 and will be one of the few women to represent a state in the 100 state assembly,” Castor said.
Florida is not the only state making such a change – Virginia is replacing the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee with civil rights icon Barbara Johns, and there are ongoing efforts by some lawmakers to increase the number of women represented in Capitol and remove Confederate statues from the display.
There are just four other black Americans represented in statues throughout the Capitol (and approx. a dozen others in paintings and murals): Frederick Douglass, Rosa Parks, Sojourner Truth and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
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