WASHINGTON – Early next year, Florida will send a statue of Mary McLeod Bethune to replace a statue of a Confederate general in the U.S. Capitol, making her the first Black person to represent a state in the National Statuary Hall Collection.
Bethune was an educator and civil rights activist. In 1904, she started a school for Black girls in Daytona Beach, which later became Bethune-Cookman University. She was also an adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The white marble statue that depicts a smiling Bethune holding a black marble rose is on display at Daytona State College’s News-Journal Center in Daytona Beach until Dec. 12, when it will head to D.C.
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, attended the statue unveiling event in Italy in July and helped unveil the statue after it arrived in Daytona Beach on Oct. 11. She said Bethune is an inspirational figure.
“Everything that she stood for is important to the state of Florida — equality, civil rights, education, veterans,” Castor said. “An obscure Confederate general, who barely lived in the state and was one of the last to surrender to the Union, is not a good representative of our diverse, beautiful, dynamic state.”
Bethune’s statue will replace one of Edmund Kirby Smith that had been representing Florida since 1922. Smith’s statue was removed Sept. 4.
According to Castor’s office, she and other members of Florida’s congressional delegation called for replacing the Smith statue after the Charleston, S.C., church massacre in June 2015, when a white supremacist killed nine Black people during a Bible study.
“Florida should seize the opportunity to place a statue in the U.S. Capitol of a great Floridian who represents the essence of the Sunshine State like Mary McLeod Bethune or (Marjory) Stoneman Douglas,” she said in a statement at the time.
There are four other African Americans represented in statues or busts throughout the Capitol — Frederick Douglass, Rosa Parks, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sojourner Truth — but none of them belongs to the National Statuary Hall Collection representing a state.
Artist Nilda Comas, who lives in Fort Lauderdale, was selected in November 2016 to sculpt the statue. The piece of white marble Comas used was excavated from Michelangelo’s cave in Italy. Comas said she created a 1-foot plasteline model in her Fort Lauderdale studio before she moved to bigger clay models and eventually the marble in Italy.
“The highest honor you can give a person through history is to do their sculpture in marble,” Comas said. “Also, marble sculptures look better under the light they have (at the Capitol).”
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The artist said Bethune is dressed in cap and gown because of her role in education. She has a walking cane in one hand, as Bethune received such a gift from Roosevelt, and in her other hand she has a black rose. Bethune was drawn to black roses when she visited Europe in 1920, Comas said, and she called her students black roses.
Comas created an identical bronze statue that will be installed in Daytona Beach’s Riverfront Park after the marble one arrives in Washington.
No decision has been made yet about where the statue will be placed, Castor said.
“We are requesting that she have a real place of honor in the old House Chamber so that everyone can see this beautiful statue and representative of the state of Florida. … We want her in the most prominent position possible,” Castor said.
Fred Hearns, curator of Black history at the Tampa Bay History Center, said Bethune was a great figure who played roles traditionally held by men during her time, but there are other people whose contributions are not recognized.
“I hope (Bethune’s statue) will make people want to learn more about African Americans who have made a difference in this country,” Hearns said.
Yvette Lewis, president of the NAACP’s Hillsborough County Branch, said she hoped the United States would do more to recognize Black contributions because Black history has been largely ignored over the years.
“The history books that we grew up with did not talk about Mary McLeod Bethune to give me hope that I can too be an educator, that I can too start my own school, to give me hope that I can achieve the things that I want,” Lewis said. “That’s a part of our history that needs to be in the books, to let people know, there is success beyond. Keep moving, keep going.”