Mary McLeod Bethune on Wednesday became the first black American to be represented with a state statue in National Statuary Hall, a central hall of the US Capitol, honored for her work in defense of education and civil rights.
Bethune, whose statue replaces that of a Confederate general, became an adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and an advocate for black Americans from school to the White House. The school she founded with $1.50 eventually became Bethune-Cookman University, a historically black university in Daytona Beach, Florida.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who hosted the dedication ceremony, called Bethune “the pride of Florida and America,” saying it was “poetic” that his image replaced that of “a general little-known Confederate,” Edmund Kirby Smith, who was among the last to surrender after the end of the Civil War in 1865.
His statue was removed in 2021. Pelosi called it “changing a traitor for a civil rights hero.”
The House voted last year to remove statues honoring Confederate leaders and other white supremacists from the Capitol. That bill and others like it come amid a year-long debate over replacing statues and names on buildings, streets and universities that commemorate racist figures. Critics say it’s best to celebrate figures who contributed to the fight for equal rights.
There are many signs of Bethune’s legacy at the university he led for 30 years, said Lawrence M. Drake II, interim president of Bethune-Cookman University. She practiced experiential teaching as an educator, a philosophy that combines activities with lesson material, he said.
“Our hearts rejoice today to see our founder and namesake take her rightful place among the most distinguished Americans,” he said.
Carved from white marble from the same quarry as Michelangelo’s David, the statue depicts Bethune in graduation attire and a cap with books. He holds a black rose, which he once described as a symbol of accepting the individuality of students. In the other hand she holds a cane given to her by Roosevelt.
The inscription is one of his best-known quotes: “Invest in the human soul. Who knows, it may be a diamond in the rough.
The artist, Nilda Comas, resides in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and is the first Hispanic sculptor to create a piece for National Statuary Hall. Each state sends two statues of outstanding citizens to represent it in Statuary Hall, an ornate amphitheater-style room right off the floor of the Chamber, or anywhere else in the Capitol.
“We can’t change history, but we can certainly make clear what we honor and what we don’t,” Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat and Majority Leader, said last year. “Symbols of hate and division have no place in the halls of Congress.”
A Senate version of the bill to remove Confederate statues from public display on Capitol Hill was introduced last year by Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jerseybut has not progressed.
Statutes can be replaced only with the approval of a state legislature and governor. Senator Rick Scott, a Republican and former Governor of Florida, began the process of commemorating Bethune.
Rep. Val Demings, a Florida Democrat, said at the ceremony that her parents taught her about Bethune’s legacy of public service. Ms. Demings, who was awarded an honorary doctorate from Bethune-Cookman University, said she still looked up to her.
“His labor of love could not be contained in his years on this earth,” Ms. Demings said. “Her contributions of hers will touch generations yet to be born. He was bold, brave. And though her journey had its triumphs and her struggles, Dr. Mary Bethune never wavered.”
Born in 1875 in South Carolina, Bethune was the daughter of formerly enslaved people and “became one of the foremost black educators, women’s and civil rights leaders, and government officials of the 20th century.” according to the National Museum of Women’s History.
She and her husband, Albertus Bethune, eventually moved with their son to Palatka, in northeast Florida. After she ended her marriage, Bethune opened a boarding school in 1904 with $1.50 and an enrollment of only five students. The school became Bethune-Cookman College by 1931 and, in 2007, Bethune-Cookman University.
She founded organizations advocating to expand voter registration and give women the right to vote, and worked with the NAACP and the United Nations to end discrimination and lynching.
In 1936, Roosevelt named Bethune the point person for black youth in the National Youth Administration, a New Deal agency focused on youth employment, making her the highest-ranking black woman in government. . She was also the leader of her unofficial “black cabinet,” according to the National Museum of Women’s History, and formed a friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt.
Bethune worked to make Americans believe that black lives matter, Rep. Frederica S. Wilson, a Florida Democrat, said at the ceremony. As a young girl who began her life working in the fields, Ms. Wilson said, Bethune realized that education was her way out, for her and for those who came after her.
Bethune was the youngest of 17 children and the first of them to learn to read
“Today we are rewriting the story that we want to share with our future generations,” said Ms. Wilson. “We are replacing a remnant of hate and division with a symbol of hope and inspiration.”
Bethune wrote a “last will and testament” essay in 1954, the year before his death, about the legacy he wanted to leave to future generations. Many speakers at the ceremony mentioned it.
“If I have a legacy to leave my people, it is my philosophy of living and serving,” he wrote. “As I face tomorrow, I am happy, because I think I have had a good time in my life. I pray now that my philosophy may be useful to those who share my vision of a world of peace, progress, brotherhood and love.”