Florida’s Mary McLeod Bethune immortalized in U.S. Capitol as symbol of justice

Rep. Castor: Bethune, too, lived at a time of division and stood firm for human rights

By: - July 13, 2022 4:47 pm

A marble statue depicting Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune of Florida now stands in Statuary Hall in the nation’s Capitol. Hers is the first likeness of a Black person to represent an individual state. At right, GOP FL Sen. Rick Scott and Democratic FL Rep. Al Lawson greet each other at the unveiling ceremony Wednesday. Screenshot: Speaker.gov

In Statuary Hall of the United States Capitol, a marble sculpture of Floridian Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune now stands, replacing the likeness of a Confederate general with that of a Black educator, a daughter of enslaved people, who became a counselor to U.S. presidents.

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

“Dr. Bethune epitomizes the values we hold dear: industriousness, thirst for education, desire to build peace among people. She devoted her life to equal rights and service; service yes to presidents, but [also] to students, women, her race, veterans and everyday Americans,” said U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor of Florida, champion of the campaign to create and install a statue of Bethune to stand as one of Florida’s two statues in the Hall. Former Gov. Rick Scott, now a U.S. senator, signed legislation in 2018 authorizing it.

“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 determined to stand up to dissenting voices, including the Ku Klux Klan, to do what many said could not be done,” Castor continued in remarks at Wednesday’s unveiling ceremony.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa led the campaign to honor Dr. Bethune with a statue in Statuary Hall. Screenshot: House.gov

“When Blacks were denied education, she built a school. Denied medical care, she built a hospital. When the world was grappling with authoritarianism, she helped establish a foundational commitment to human rights through the United Nations [with her friend First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt],” Castor said. Bethune was an advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and later to President Harry Truman.

The 11-foot-tall statue, installed next to a statue of Black civil-rights heroine Rosa Parks, was created from Italian marble by Nilda Comas, the first Hispanic artist to have her work placed in Statuary Hall. The Parks piece is sculpted as though seated, representing her defiance of segregation on public buses, was placed in Statuary Hall by Congress. Bethune’s is the first state-designated statue of a Black person and one of just a few state-designated statues of women, Castor said.

Castor called attention to features of the statue such as Bethune’s calm smile; the cap and gown, representing her years as an educator; the cane held in her right hand, given to her by President Roosevelt; and the black rose, representing her students.

The statue of Dr. Bethune, seen here in Italy, where it was created by sculptor Nilda Comas. Courtesy of Rep. Castor, 2021

Her statue replaces one of Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith, whose likeness represented Florida for 100 years. It now stands in the Museum of Florida History, in Tallahassee.

Bethune founded a small school for Black girls in 1904. It is now Bethune-Cookman University, a private liberal arts institution in Daytona Beach and an HBCU — part of a group of historically black colleges and universities.

U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson of Florida said Bethune was a pioneer for social justice, educating “a generation of Black children who had never been valued for their minds.”

“She made First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt know that Black lives matter. She made five presidents believe that Black lives matter. She made America begin to learn that Black lives matter,” Wilson said. “We have a seat at the table because she brought a folding chair.”

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy also spoke at the ceremony, praising most highly Bethune’s self-sufficiency.

“Dr. Bethune knew, in the great cause of liberty, there can be no excuses. Growth never arises out of playing the blame game. To her, the question was never who to blame, rather but how to grow,” McCarthy said, adding a plug for “parents’ freedom to choose the best school” for their children.

U.S. House Majority Whip James Clyburn drew a parallel between history and real time centered on the exchange of a statue of Gen. Smith for a statue of Dr. Bethune.

“We cannot change history, and we should not try. Nor should we attempt to revise or distort events and misguided tributes to defenders of human bondage or perpetrators of false theories,” Clyburn said, prompting applause.

“We are replacing a remnant of hatred and division with a symbol of hope and inspiration,” U.S. Rep. Wilson said, adding she is “proud to be a Wildcat,” referring to the Bethune-Cookman mascot.

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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.

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