Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Civil rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune honored with statue at US Capitol

Jacquelyn Martin
A statue of Mary McLeod Bethune was unveiled Wednesday in the U.S. Capitol. A granddaughter, Evelyn Bethune, front left in yellow, speaks with Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas.

An 11-foot marble likeness of civil-rights leader and educator Mary McLeod Bethune was unveiled Wednesday in the U.S. Capitol, replacing a statue of a former Confederate general that represented Florida in the National Statuary Hall for nearly a century.

During an unveiling ceremony, U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., described the change as “rewriting the history we want to share with our future generations. We are replacing a remnant of hatred and division with the symbol of hope and inspiration.”

The statue of Bethune, described as “a drum major for justice,” is the first time a state has honored a Black person in the U.S. Capitol collection, which features two statues from each state. Among other things, Bethune founded what is now Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach.

“Our hearts are rejoicing today, seeing our founder and namesake take her rightful place among the most distinguished Americans here in the center of our democracy,” Bethune-Cookman Interim President Lawrence Drake II said during the unveiling ceremony.

“No one could have predicted that this daughter of slaves would create a university, found a powerful political organization, advise presidents and inspire generations,” Drake II continued. “Through her hopeful vision, her hard work, her generous spirit, and her deep, deep faith, she made a lasting and positive mark on our country and the world.”

A South Carolina native and the only child among 17 in her family to attend school, Bethune moved to Florida at the start of the 20th century. In 1904, Bethune used $1.50 to start the Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls — with an inaugural class of five girls under the age of 12 and her son Albert. The school later developed into Bethune-Cookman.

“When Blacks were denied education, she built a school,” U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla, said. “Denied medical care, she built a hospital. When the world was grappling with authoritarianism, she helped establish the foundational commitment to human rights through the United Nations.”

While remaining with the school into the 1940s, Bethune founded the National Council of Negro Women, worked with President Franklin Roosevelt to create the Federal Council on Colored Affairs, also known as the Black Cabinet, and was part of a U.S. delegation that created the United Nations charter

“She served her community, her state, her country, from the schoolhouse to the White House,” U.S. Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., said. “Dr. Bethune did her part to form that more perfect union that we love to talk about and to establish justice.”

Confederate Statue Florida
Architect of the Capitol
The statue of Mary McLeod Bethune replaced a bronze sculpture of Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith, who was born in St. Augustine.

Bethune died in Daytona Beach in 1955 at age 79.

The U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in her honor in 1985.
In a statement before the event, U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., described Bethune as a “great Floridian who represents the values of our state.” While serving as governor, Scott signed legislation to approve placing the Bethune statue in the National Statuary Hall.

“Today is a day we all have been working toward for years,” Scott said. “I am so proud to welcome the statue into our nation’s Capitol, and I hope that American families will learn from her legacy for decades to come.”

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said Bethune “refused to accept that her humble beginnings or the color of her skin were a limit on her dreams and on her destiny” and that in the “face of the ignorance, the cruelty and the prejudice of others, she refused to surrender to bitterness, cynicism or despair.”

Florida lawmakers in 2016 voted to replace a bronze sculpture of former Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith amid a nationwide backlash against Confederate symbols that followed the 2015 shooting deaths of nine Black worshippers at a historic Black church in Charleston, S.C.

Lawmakers spent two years considering a replacement, with Bethune edging out George Jenkins, the founder of the Publix grocery-store chain, and Marjory Stoneman Douglas, the environmentalist and author best known for her 1947 work “The Everglades: River of Grass.”

The Smith statue had been in the hall since 1922. A marble statue of John Gorrie, widely considered the father of air conditioning, is Florida’s other representative in the hall.

The statue of Smith was removed from the hall last September and turned over to the Florida Department of State.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called Smith a “little known Confederate general.”

Born in St. Augustine, Smith had few ties to Florida after attending West Point. He commanded Confederate forces west of the Mississippi and is considered the last general with a major field force to surrender in the Civil War. He spent his later years as a college professor in Tennessee.