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Pioneering Black educator's statue to replace Confederate statue at the Capitol

The statue of Mary McLeod Bethune, a civil rights activist born to former slaves, will represent Florida in the National Statuary Hall Collection, starting in 2022.
Portrait Of Mary McLeod Bethune
American educator and civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune in front of the U.S. Capitol, circa 1950. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Civil rights activist and Bethune-Cookman University founder Mary McLeod Bethune will soon make history again. 

She will be the first Black person to represent a state in the National Statuary Hall Collection at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. The renowned educator’s Florida-commissioned statue will be placed permanently in the Capitol in February 2022, replacing the statue of a confederate general.

Standing at 11 feet tall and weighing in at 6,000 pounds, the statue shows Bethune in a cap and gown to signify her dedication to education. It also features a stack of her own books piled next to her. A smaller bronze version will also be placed in Riverfront Park near Mary McLeod Bethune Boulevard.

The statue was created by Nilda Comas, a decorated sculptor who splits her time between Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Pietrasanta, Italy. She will be the first Latina sculptor with a piece in the Capitol’s collection, according to NPR.

The statue of Mary McLeod Bethune on display at the Daytona State College’s News-Journal Center in Florida.Courtesy Rep. Kathy Castor

In 2016, then-Gov. Rick Scott approved a measure to remove the statue of Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith, who was born in Florida, from the Statuary Hall. The bronze was removed in September and temporarily transported to a Florida museum.

The Florida Department of State’s Division of Arts and Culture reviewed the names of more than 3,000 Floridians to replace that statue, narrowing it down to 130 potential subjects. It chose Bethune after receiving 1,233 votes in favor of her to represent the state, according to Evolve Magazine, a business publication based in Florida. The statue was temporarily on display at the Daytona State College’s News-Journal Center until Dec. 12 and will be shipped to Washington. 

“Dr. Bethune embodies the very best of the Sunshine State — Floridians and all Americans can take great pride in being represented by the great educator and civil rights icon,” U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., said in a statement.  

Who was Mary McLeod Bethune?

Born in South Carolina in 1875, Bethune was one of 17 children. Her parents were formerly enslaved and the family picked cotton to make a living. Nonetheless, Bethune was committed to her education. She eventually graduated from Scotia Seminary, a Presbyterian boarding school for Black girls, in 1894.

Mary McLeod Bethune, circa 1920. Chicago History Museum / Getty Images

Next, she went north to Chicago to study at the Moody Bible Institute, with the goal of doing missionary work in Africa. At the time, she was the only Black student enrolled. There, she established Sunday schools in neglected parts of Chicago, worked with prisoners in city jails, and helped with the Pacific Garden Mission, which housed and fed hundreds of people each day.

When she sought an opportunity for mission work in Africa, the Presbyterian Board of Missions denied her request and instead sent her to Georgia, where she worked at a school for Black girls. Soon after, she married Albert Bethune, and eventually the couple and their child moved to Florida. While teaching in Palatka, Florida, she learned of the poor living and educational conditions of Black residents of Daytona Beach.

Soon, Bethune started a school in Daytona with a commitment to provide Black girls a higher quality education.

Bethune was resourceful. She created her own pencils using charred wood and elderberries for ink. 

The school offered courses in science, business and liberal arts, according to the National Women’s History Museum. 

The school would later combine with the Cookman Institute, an all-male school, to form Bethune-Cookman, a coeducational high school, in 1923. After becoming affiliated with the United Methodist Church, the school became a college, and is now a university. However, Bethune’s advocacy didn’t stop there. She remained a tireless champion for African American women and girls. 

Two years after Bethune-Cookman formed, she became the president of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs. And in 1935, she founded the National Council of Negro Women. 

She served as the only woman on President Franklin Roosevelt's advisory board of Black leaders, which Bethune dubbed the "Black Cabinet." Roosevelt appointed her to the National Youth Administration, a New Deal program, and she oversaw employment opportunities and job training for young people across the country.

“If I have a legacy to leave my people, it is my philosophy of living and serving,” Bethune said in her final will and testament, in which she explained how she expects her legacy to be love, hope and a “thirst for education.” 

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