The National Statuary Hall on Wednesday got its first state-commissioned statue of a Black American as Mary McLeod Bethune of Florida took her place at the US Capitol in Washington, honoured for her work as an educator and civil rights activist.
The state of Ms Bethune replaces a statue of a minor Confederate general named Edmund Kirby Smith who was one of the last to surrender following the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865. Mr Smith’s statue was removed last year.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who led the dedication ceremony, said that Florida was “trading a traitor for a civil rights hero”. Each state sends two statues to represent it in the National Statuary Hall, which is located close to the House floor.
“It’s a privilege for all of us to pay tribute to Mary McLeod Bethune, an unyielding force for racial justice, a pioneering voice for racial equity, at that time imagined, and a devoted advocate for education,” Ms Pelosi said from the podium in the statuary hall.
Florida’s senior Sen Marco Rubio also paid tribute to Ms Bethune, though in significantly less specific terms than Ms Pelosi did.
“Today we unveiled a statue of an American who left for all of us an example: an example of love, an example of hope, an example of faith in God, an example of a desire to live in harmony with others, to live in harmony with our fellow citizens — an example which our nation should follow now,” Mr Rubio said.
Ms Bethune was not solely an advocate for harmony, but, as Ms Pelosi noted, an advocate for justice across issues and decades with an extensive resumé.
Born in a log cabin in rural South Carolina, among the last of the 17 children born to her parents, Ms Bethune was raised in the shadows of American slavery. Both of her parents were formerly enslaved, and a number of her siblings had been born into slavery as well.
Growing up, Ms Bethune was the only member of her family to attend school. She married Albertus Bethune and moved to Florida shortly before the turn of the 20th century, where her legacy would grow consistently in the coming decades.
She became a leader in the voting rights movement, helping register Black Floridians to vote, and took up prominent roles in national civil rights organisations like the National Association of Colored Women and the National Council of Negro Women. She would become the highest-ranking Black official in the administration of President Franklin D Roosevelt, where she led the Division of Negro Affairs in the National Youth Administration.
But Ms Bethune is likely best known for founding in 1904 a boarding school for Black women in Daytona Beach. The school launched with just five students, but grew throughout the early part of the century and in 1931 merged with all-boys Cookman Institute to become Bethune-Cookman College.
Ms Bethune, a skilled fundraiser, served as president of her institution both before and after the merger, making her one of the very few female college presidents in the world at that time.
Now, she is being honoured at the statuary hall in the place of a Confederate at a time when Democratic lawmakers have pushed for all statues of Confederate officials and white supremacists to be removed from the Capitol grounds. The House passed a bill last year to remove all such statues from public display, but an accompanying bill has not advance in the Senate.
The statue of Ms Bethune is notable in its own right: it was crafted by Fort Lauderdale-based sculptor Nilda Comas, who is now the first Hispanic artist to have their work displayed in the National Statuary Hall.
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