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Capitol unveils Mary McLeod Bethune statue, a historic milestone years in the making

Members of the public view the newly unveiled statue of Mary McLeod Bethune at the News-Journal Center in Daytona Beach on Oct. 12, 2021. It's slated to move to the U.S. Capitol Building's National Statuary Hall early next year.
Nigel Cook/News-Journal
Members of the public view the newly unveiled statue of Mary McLeod Bethune at the News-Journal Center in Daytona Beach on Oct. 12, 2021. It's slated to move to the U.S. Capitol Building's National Statuary Hall early next year.

Updated July 13, 2022 at 12:34 PM ET

Educator and civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune made history on Wednesday as the first Black person to have a state-commissioned statue in the U.S. Capitol's Statuary Hall, when her statue replaced that of a Confederate general.

Bethune, the daughter of formerly enslaved people, was an influential educator and activist who — among her many accomplishments — founded the National Council of Negro Women, advised multiple U.S. presidents and created a boarding school for Black children that would later become Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach.

The larger-than-life statue had been on display in its home state of Florida since October 2021, before making the journey to Washington, D.C. It was formally unveiled in a ceremony led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and featuring many of the lawmakers and activists who fought and fundraised for years to make the moment possible.

Florida Democratic U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor said at the ceremony that Bethune epitomizes all of the values the state — the first to be represented by a Black American in the National Statuary Hall — holds dear, from industriousness to thirst for education to desire to build peace.

"We lift her up today at a time of competing ideologies to help heal and unify through her example, because she also lived at 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 she hopes Bethune's statue will serve as a symbol of hope, justice and love for America and all humankind.

The 11-foot statue, which weighs more than 6,000 lbs., was sculpted out of the largest (and last) piece of statuary marble from Michelangelo's quarry in Italy. It was created by artist Nilda Comas, who was chosen from a field of 1,600 applicants and is the first Hispanic master sculptor to create a statue for the National Statuary Hall State Collection.

It's a historic addition to the famous collection, one that followed a lengthy process and will likely not be the last such swap.

A symbolic statue for an American icon

With a subject and sculptor secured, the creation of the actual statue involved significant fundraising and research 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 feature-length documentary and a K-12 curriculum module.

Fund president Nancy Lohman said at the unveiling ceremony that nearly 500 donors and other advocates had taken part in the effort over the last 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's been slated for a new riverfront park in Daytona Beach.

Before she started sculpting, Comas conducted intensive research at state and national archives, the State of Florida Archives and Bethune-Cookman University.

At the Florida unveiling last fall, she called the four-year process "a beautiful journey."

"I just fell in love with Dr. Bethune and everything that she did," Comas said, according to Orlando NBC affiliate WESH.

The statue depicts Bethune wearing a cap and gown and a pearl necklace, holding a black rose in one hand and a walking stick in the other. She's standing in front of a stack of books, with a warm smile and what one local reporter described as eyes that "capture wisdom [and] kindness."

The base of the pedestal is inscribed with her name, her home state, birth and death dates, as well as one of her most famous quotes: "Invest in the human soul. Who knows, it may be a diamond in the rough."

Educator and civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune, photographed in January 1943.
/ Gordon Parks/Library of Congress
Gordon Parks/Library of Congress
Educator and civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune, photographed in January 1943.

These symbols each speak to an element of Bethune's life and legacy, the nonprofit explains.

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 her one of her famous writings, her last will and testament: love, faith, racial dignity, courage, peace and "a thirst for education."

Bethune collected walking sticks during her lifetime, reportedly seeing them as symbols of refinement and leadership. The walking stick 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 only female member of Roosevelt's "Black Cabinet."

The black rose represents Bethune's work in education, as well as her belief that "loving thy neighbor" required interracial, inter-religious and international brotherhood, according to the nonprofit.

"Although there is no species of flower called a 'black rose,' Dr. Bethune was captivated by beauty of a rose with a particular dark hue," it explained. "These dark roses instantly became her favorite. She thereafter referred to her pupils as her '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). However, none of those new additions depicted Black Americans — until Wednesday.

Florida first moved to replace one of its statues, honoring Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith, in 2016. It was removed from the Capitol last September.

State lawmakers unanimously approved Bethune as its replacement in 2018, after after a lengthy search process that included input from members of the public.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis officially requested in 2019 — on the 144th anniversary of Bethune's birthday — that she 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 only a few women to represent a state in the 100-statue collection," Castor said.

Florida is not the only state to make such a change. Virginia is replacing its statue of the Confederate General Robert E. Lee with civil rights icon Barbara Johns, while Arkansas is in the process of replacing both of its statues with depictions of civil rights leader Daisy Bates and country legend Johnny Cash. And there are ongoing efforts by some lawmakers to increase the number of women represented in the Capitol and remove Confederate statues from display.

Nine statues depicting Confederate generals remain on display in the Capitol, according to the Washington Post, and the House of Representatives voted along party lineslast June to remove them from public display.

There are just four other Black Americans represented in statues throughout the Capitol (and about a dozen others in paintings and murals): Frederick Douglass, Rosa Parks, Sojourner Truth and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

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Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.