Mary McLeod Bethune statue unveiled as she becomes first African American woman to represent her state in nation’s history

A statue of Mary McLeod Bethune (right) now represents Florida in the Capitol, replacing a bronze sculpture of Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith.
NNPA photo submitted

By D. Kevin McNeir
Senior Editor Washington Informer

After five years of struggles, negotiations that required state and federal approvals, logistical challenges and a fundraising effort that generated close to $1 million, a pristine, towering statue made of marble was introduced to the world honoring Mary McLeod Bethune in Washington, D.C. 

The 13-foot-long block of precious marble now stands in the U.S. Capitol Building’s National Statuary Hall where family members, civic leaders and elected officials gathered for a moving ceremony.

“This is one of the most important weeks in our state’s history and in the history of our country,” said Nancy Lohman, president of the Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune Statuary Fund, who attended the ceremony last Wednesday.

“Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune’s statue unveiling and dedication is historic as the first African American – male or female – to be honored in the National Statuary Hall State Collection. I am so proud that the great State of Florida is becoming greater on July 13, 2022.”

Before the unveiling in the District, Volusia County residents and community activists and educators and students at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Fla., got a sneak peek of the new statue.

Upon its unveiling in the District, the Bethune statue becomes one of the two statues representing Florida in the Capitol, replacing a nearly 100-year-old bronze sculpture of Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith.

The Smith statue was placed in storage at the Museum of Florida History in Tallahassee after being removed last fall.

Bethune’s statue becomes the first representing a Black person in the state collection inside Statuary Hall.

There are four other Black people represented in other parts of the Capitol: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth and Rosa Parks.

Prior to the unveiling, the Daytona Beach community gathered at the Mary McLeod Bethune Performing Arts Center on the campus of Bethune-Cookman University for a watch party.

BCU Interim President Lawrence M. Drake II described the dedication of the statue as a “pivotal moment” in the history of the university that Bethune founded.

“It’s a special moment for this university, a special moment for America,” said Drake, who attended the ceremony at the Capitol.

“We have an opportunity to celebrate an enormously influential woman, someone that I think is still somewhat obscure to some people. There are people who don’t really know her. They may know her name or be aware of her but this will offer the opportunity for them to look at her enormous impact, not just on Black America but on the world.”

Others who attended the ceremony honoring the educator, civil rights icon and advocate for Black women’s advancement included Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, House Majority Whip James Clyburn, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.), U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.), U.S. Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) and U.S. Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.).

Guests also included Daytona Beach Mayor Derrick Henry who called the statue’s installation at the U.S. Capitol “a crowning moment” that ensures Bethune’s legacy will endure for generations to come.

“Quite simply, I think this is the singular achievement in the history of our community,” Henry said. “It is the crowning glory for a woman that is worthy of sainthood, the crowning moment in her long list of great achievements. 

“If I were to describe our community as a ship, I also would describe Dr. Bethune as our rudder. When we get lost, when we lose our way, we go back to the values she laid out. We can see her as our guiding light in a community that has a great history of decency.”