A larger-than-life marble statue of civil rights pioneer Mary McLeod Bethune is replacing one of a Confederate general in the US Capitol’s Statuary Hall.
The daughter of former slaves, Bethune became an influential Black educator and civil and women’s rights leader. She opened a boarding school for Black children in 1904, which later became Bethune-Cookman University.
Bethune will make history when she becomes the first African American to have a state-commissioned statue in Statuary Hall, according to a press release from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. The governor requested the replacement of the General Edmund Kirby Smith statue in 2019.
“Dr. Bethune embodies the very best of the Sunshine State – Floridians and all Americans can take great pride in being represented by the great educator and civil rights icon,” US Rep. Kathy Castor of Florida said in a press release Tuesday. Castor was at the unveiling.
The National Statuary Hall Collection features two statues from each state.
The 11-foot-tall statue of Bethune was unveiled Monday in Daytona Beach, Florida, which Bethune called home and is home of Bethune-Cookman University.
The statue will be on display in Daytona Beach through December before it makes its way to the US Capitol in early 2022.
“There are a lot of firsts that are great for our country, the state of Florida and for our hometown here in Daytona Beach,” said Bob Lloyd, board treasurer of the Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune Statuary Fund, Inc.
Bethune’s statue was made by a Hispanic woman, master sculptor Nilda Comas, who spent two years carving it. Beyond Bethune being the first African American to represent a state in the Statutory Hall, she’s also the first person from Daytona Beach to be represented there, Lloyd said.
“I’m third-generation from Daytona Beach, Florida. My grandfather called her his friend,” Lloyd told CNN. His grandfather, a local car dealer for decades, was active in civil rights and befriended Bethune, he added.
“It’s, like, three generations, and the connection is very real,” he said. “It’s one that my family is really proud of.”
She fought for civil and women’s rights
Bethune was born on a farm near Maysville, South Carolina, in 1875. She was the 15th child of former slaves.
In 1904, she created Daytona Beach Literary and Industrial School for Training Negro Girls.
Bethune’s impact left a mark in Florida but also on Black people and women at large. Her life’s work is an inspiration to Nancy Lohman, board president of the Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune Statuary Fund, Inc.
“Dr. Bethune was an amazing trailblazer,” Lohman told CNN. “She fought for African American rights, women’s rights. When she saw a problem, she got involved to help create a solution.”
Bethune led voter registration drives after women gained the right to vote in 1920.
She served as an adviser to five US presidents. Bethune was named director of the National Youth Administration’s Office of Negro Affairs under President Franklin Roosevelt. She was also friends with the President and then-first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
“She had a poised and patient demeanor,” Lohman said. “She really sets an example that’s relevant today that collaboration and census building and reasoning with professional dialogue is a way to move agendas forward.”
Bethune’s statue was years in the making
The journey to recognize Bethune in this way began in 2016, Lloyd said.
Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill into law requesting the replacement of the Smith statue that year, Lloyd said. Bethune was selected In 2018.
The 6,129-pound statue was made from a 11.5-ton block of white marble. The marble was excavated from a cave that Michelangelo used in the Italian Alps.
Bethune would not be in statue form if it hadn’t been for the Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune Statuary Fund, Inc. The board of the nonprofit raised about $800,000 in private donations, Lloyd said.
The money went toward the marble statue, as well as a bronze statue that’s been slated for a new riverfront park in Daytona Beach, Lohman said. A documentary and a school curriculum module will follow, she added.
“Her life achievements and her legacy are a positive influence in my life,” Lohman said. “The opportunity we have in our country is for her legacy to be a positive influence in everyone’s life and particularly in our younger children and students.”