Civil rights activist and educator Mary McLeod Bethune has made history as the first Black person to have a state-commissioned statue in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall.
Florida commissioned the project after a grassroots campaign succeeded in removing a statue of Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith last year. The statue of Bethune officially replaced a statue of a Confederate general on Wednesday at an event attended by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, as well as many activists and lawmakers.
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Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL) spoke at the event, saying: “I am proud to be a Floridian this morning, because the people of the state of Florida have sent the great educator and civil rights leader Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune to represent our dynamic and diverse state — the first to be represented by a Black American in National Statuary Hall.”
“She devoted her life to equal rights and service,” Rep. Castor continued. “We lift her up today at a time of competing ideologies to help heal and unify through her example.”
Bethune was born in South Carolina in 1875. The daughter of formerly enslaved people, she helped lay the groundwork for the Civil Rights Movement. She led voter registration drives, served as the highest-ranking Black government official under President Franklin D. Roosevelt and co-founded the United Negro College Fund, which became a financial backbone for dozens of historically Black higher institutions nationwide.
Bethune also founded the National Council of Negro Women, which worked to improve the lives of Black women and their communities, and Bethune-Cookman University, a historically Black college in Daytona Beach, Florida.
“She was the Oprah of her time. She was the Booker T. Washington of her time. She was the Martin Luther King of her time,” Ashley Robertson Preston, Ph.D., a history professor at Howard University, said to AP News.
The 11-foot-tall, white marble statue of Bethune shows her in academic robes, holding a black rose. According to AP News, books are stacked at the statue’s feet with inscriptions of core values from Bethune’s last will: love, hope, faith, racial dignity, a thirst for education, courage and peace.
Bethune joins John Gorrie, an American physician and the “father of air conditioning and refrigeration,” in representing Florida.
Her granddaughter, Evelyn Bethune, said to AP News: “To have her statue here is quite phenomenal, absolutely, as a reminder of what our democracy is about.”