Late civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune has just become the first African-American to be recognized in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall, as part of the National Statuary Hall Collection. On Wednesday (Jul 13), a ceremony commemorating the unveiling of Bethune’s newly placed statue took place at the U.S. Capitol – making her the first Black person elevated by a state for this honor.
The white marble statue displays Dr. Bethune in an academic robe holding a black rose. Books stacked at the statue’s feet are also inscribed with the core values from Bethune’s last will and testament: “Love, hope, faith, racial dignity, a thirst for education, courage, and peace.”
The “black roses,” metaphor is what Bethune often referred to her Black students as in an endearing manner. Ashley Robertson Preston, a Howard University Bethune historian shared Bethune’s meaning behind the metaphor. “After visiting a garden in Europe, she [Bethune] saw black roses growing among the yellows and reds,” she said.
Bethune’s granddaughter took to the podium and spoke about her grandmother. “To have her statue here is quite phenomenal, absolutely, as a reminder of what our democracy is about,” she expressed. Democratic Represenative Val Demings also shared in a speech during the unveiling, “[Bethune] made what seemed impossible, possible.”
The state of Florida approved the project after a successful grassroots campaign in 2021 that resulted in the removal of confederate general Edmund Kirby Smith’s statue. Bethune’s statue now joins Florida’s John Gorrie–a pioneer in air conditioning and refrigeration.
The Southern Poverty Law Center mentioned the removal of Smith’s statue in a statement that reads, “There is still work to do” in regards to removing statues that honor “men who voluntarily fought on behalf of the Confederacy.” The SPLC urges the replacement of confederate statues in Statuary Hall with those who represent “their state’s values of diversity, equality and justice.”
Bethune is known for a plethora of strides in the Civil Rights Movement, specifically the founding of Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Florida. In 1904, she started an all-girls school and went on to eventually become one of the founders of the United Negro College Fund, which serves as a financial safety net for predominantly Black institutions across the country.