Statue of Florida’s Mary McLeod Bethune heading to the nation’s Capitol, replacing Confederate image

By: - July 12, 2021 6:00 pm

Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, as sculpted by Fort Lauderdale resident Nilda Comas, is on its way to Statuary Hall, where it will replace a statue of a Confederate general. Photo provided by U.S. Rep. Betty Castor.

A statue of prominent Florida educator and civil rights advocate Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune is on its way to the U.S. Capitol — after at least six years of efforts — where it will be the first in the National Statuary Hall to commemorate an African American from any state.

The path to the Statuary Hall Collection in the U.S. Capitol led from bills in the Florida Legislature to Congress, and from Washington, D.C., to Italy.

Sculptor Nilda Comas of Fort Lauderdale created this statue of Dr. Bethune in Pietrasanta, Italy, from Italian marble. Credit: Congresswoman Kathy Castor

Congresswoman Kathy Castor, a Tampa Democrat, announced Monday that the newly created statue was unveiled Saturday in Pietrasanta, Italy, on the anniversary of Bethune’s birth. The statue was sculpted there by Nilda Comas, who lives in and works in both Fort Lauderdale and in Pietrasanta.

In Congress, Confederate statues and busts are poised for replacement, including one of Edmund Kirby Smith, a Confederate general from Florida.

Castor’s office told the Phoenix the statue of Bethune will be installed in Statuary Hall late this year or early next year.

Her staff said Castor and other members of Florida’s congressional delegation called for removal of Smith’s statue in June 2015 after the church shooting massacre of Black parishioners at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston by a white supremacist.

Bethune’s likeness also will be one of only a few women commemorated in the 100-statue collection.

Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, 1915. Credit: State Archives of Florida

Bethune’s accomplishments include founding what would become Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach. College Vice President Clifford Porter has described her as a person “whose influence and ability to convene individuals for the common good across racial and political lines made her an asset to the City of Daytona Beach and the nation, at large, as she advised U.S. Presidents Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt.”

Castor championed the selection of Dr. Bethune to represent Florida in Statuary Hall and the effort to create the statue. She attended the unveiling of the statue in Pietrasanta, Italy, where it was sculpted by Comas, the first Hispanic female to sculpt a statue for Statuary Hall, according to Castor’s announcement.

“The citizens of the state of Florida can take great pride in being represented by the great educator and civil rights icon Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune,” Castor said in the announcement. “Her legacy and the sculpture will provide a symbol of unity, hope and reconciliation in a state and a country that continues to grapple with racial justice and equal rights for all.”

During the administration of former Gov. Rick Scott, now a U.S. senator, the 2016 Florida Legislature supported removing the statue of Smith. In January 2017, a committee in the Florida Department of State came up with three names for consideration to replace the Smith statue: Bethune, environmentalist and author Marjory Stoneman Douglas, and George Washington Jenkins, a businessman who founded Publix.

In 2018, the Legislature voted to replace Smith’s statue with one of Bethune.

But Scott, before leaving office as governor, did not write a letter to U.S. Capitol authorities that was required to facilitate the exchange of sculptures, according to Scott’s office at the time.

Congresswoman Castor urged Scott’s successor, Gov. Ron DeSantis, to act on the statue replacement during a meeting in the governor’s office in March 2019, even providing a sample letter to send to Washington, D.C.

DeSantis, who took office in January 2019, wrote the requisite letter in July of 2019.

“Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune was a prominent Floridian, a visionary, influential educator, leader and civil rights activist who became one of our nation’s most notable figures. Her legacy endured and will continue to inspire future generations,” DeSantis wrote in a July 2019 letter formally requesting the exchange.

In Castor’s timeline, on June 7 Florida requested the early removal of the Edmund Kirby Smith statue.

Florida’s other representative in the 100-statue collection is a statue of Dr. John Gorrie, an Apalachicola physician who invented an early form of air-conditioning as a means to cool feverish patients.

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Laura Cassels
Laura Cassels

Laura Cassels is a reporter, former statehouse bureau chief, and former city editor. She is a classical pianist, a Florida State University graduate and proud alum of the Florida Flambeau, an independent college newspaper.