Mary McLeod Bethune Wednesday became the first black American to be represented with a state statue in the National Statuary Hall, a central room of the United States Capitol, honored for her work championing education and civil rights.
Bethune, whose statue replaces one of a Confederate general, became an adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and an advocate for black Americans from the schoolhouse to the White House. The school she founded with $1.50 eventually became Bethune-Cookman University, a historically black university in Daytona Beach, Florida.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who hosted the dedication ceremony, called Bethune “the pride of Florida and America” and said it was “poetic” that her likeness would replace that of “a little-known Confederate general,” Edmund Kirby Smith. was one of the last to surrender after the end of the Civil War in 1865.
His statue was removed in 2021. Ms. Pelosi called it “exchanging a traitor for a civil rights hero.”
The House voted last year to remove statues honoring Confederate leaders and other white supremacists from the Capitol exhibit. That bill and others like it come amid years of debate over the replacement of statues and names on buildings, streets and universities commemorating racist figures. Critics say it is better to celebrate figures who have contributed to the fight for equal rights.
There are many signs of Bethune’s legacy to the university she led for 30 years, said Lawrence M. Drake II, the interim president of Bethune-Cookman University. She practiced experiential education as an educator, a philosophy that combines activities with teaching materials, he said.
“Our hearts are delighted today to see our founder and namesake take her rightful place among America’s most eminent,” he said.
The statue, sculpted in white marble from the same quarry as Michelangelo’s David, shows Bethune in graduation ornaments and a cap with books. She is holding a black rose, which she once described as a symbol of acceptance of students’ individuality. In her other hand she holds a stick given to her by Roosevelt.
The inscription is one of her most famous quotes: “Invest in the human soul. Who knows, it might be a diamond in the rough.”
Based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the artist, Nilda Comas, is the first Spanish sculptor to create a piece for the National Statuary Hall. Each state sends two statues of prominent citizens to represent it in Statuary Hall, an ornate amphitheatre-style room just off the floor of the house, or elsewhere in the Capitol.
“We can’t change history, but we can certainly clarify what we honor and what we don’t honor,” Maryland Democrat and Majority Leader Representative Steny H. Hoyer said last year. “Symbols of hatred and division have no place in the halls of Congress.”
New Jersey Democrat Senator Cory Booker last year introduced a Senate draft of the bill to remove Confederate States statues from public display in the Capitol.
Statues can only be replaced with the approval of a state legislator and governor. Senator Rick Scott, a Republican and former Florida governor, began the process to remember Bethune.
Florida Democrat Val Demings said at the ceremony that her parents taught her about Bethune’s legacy of public service. Ms. Demings, who received an honorary doctorate from Bethune-Cookman University, said she still looked up to her.
“Her labor of love could not be contained in her years on this earth,” said Ms. Demings. “Her contributions will touch unborn generations. She was brave, brave. And though her journey had its triumphs and struggles, Dr Mary Bethune never wavered.”
Born in South Carolina in 1875, Bethune was a daughter of formerly enslaved people and “became one of the foremost black educators, civil and women’s rights leaders, and government officials of the twentieth century,” according to the National Women’s History Museum. .
She and her husband, Albertus Bethune, eventually moved with their son to Palatka, in northeastern Florida. After her marriage ended, Bethune opened a boarding school in 1904 with $1.50 and an enrollment of just five students. The school became Bethune-Cookman College in 1931 and, in 2007, Bethune-Cookman University.
She founded organizations that advocated expanding voter registration and granting women the right to vote, and worked with the NAACP and the United Nations to end discrimination and lynching.
In 1936, Roosevelt named Bethune the point of contact for black youth at the National Youth Administration, a New Deal agency that focused on youth employment, making her the top black woman in government. She was also a leader of his unofficial “Black Cabinet,” according to the National Women’s History Museum, and befriended Eleanor Roosevelt.
Bethune did her best to make Americans believe that black lives matter, Florida Democrat Representative Frederica S. Wilson said at the ceremony. As a child starting her life on the land, Ms. Wilson said, Bethune realized that an education was the way out—for herself and those who came after her.
Bethune was the youngest of 17 siblings and the first of them to learn to read.
“Today we are rewriting the history we want to share with our future generations,” said Ms. Wilson. “We are replacing a remnant of hatred and division with a symbol of hope and inspiration.”
Bethune wrote an essay in 1954, the year before she died, about the legacy she wanted to leave for future generations. Many speakers at the ceremony referred to it.
“If I have a legacy to leave my people, that is my philosophy of living and serving,” she wrote. “Looking at tomorrow, I’m satisfied, because I think I’ve spent my life well. I pray now that my philosophy may be useful to those who share my vision of a world of peace, progress, brotherhood and love.”