First statue of Black American unveiled in National Statuary Hall

A statue of Mary McLeod Bethune, which is the first state statue of a Black woman in Statuary Hall, is seen in the Capitol.
Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press
A statue of Mary McLeod Bethune, which is the first state statue of a Black woman in Statuary Hall, is seen in the Capitol.

For the first time ever, the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall collection features a Black American.  

On Wednesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and members of Congress celebrated the dedication of a statue of Mary McLeod Bethune.  

“Dr. Bethune epitomizes the values we hold dear,” said Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla). “We lift her up today at a time of competing ideologies to help heal and unify through her example.”

Bethune was born in 1875 in South Carolina, the 15th child of her enslaved mother and father. After her marriage, she moved to Florida, where she would go on to champion racial and gender equality.

In 1904, Bethune opened the Daytona Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls, now Bethune-Cookman University.

She also founded several organizations, including the first Black hospital in Daytona and the National Council of Negro Women. In 1940, she was elected vice president of the NAACP. 

“I remember as a little girl listening to my mother and father talk about a Black woman; a woman who looked like us, who started a college, here in Florida. As I listened to the story, it seemed impossible. Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune made what seemed impossible, possible,” said Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) on Twitter.

Bethune’s work spread to the federal government as well. In 1936, she became the highest-ranking Black woman in government after then-President Franklin Roosevelt named her the director of the National Youth Administration’s Division of Negro Affairs. 

Roosevelt was one of five presidents Bethune advised in her lifetime.

Lawrence Drake, president of Bethune-Cookman University, said the community “rejoices” in seeing its founder take her “rightful place” among the other distinguished American statues. 

“No one could have predicted that this daughter of slaves would create a university, found a powerful political organization, advise presidents and inspire generations,” said Drake. “Her hopeful vision, her hard work, her generous spirit and her deep faith made a lasting and positive mark on our country and the world.”

The 11-foot statue of Bethune features her smiling in a cap and gown, a black rose clutched in her left hand. 

All states donate two statues to the Capitol, but Florida requested a change to its donation of Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith. Bethune’s statue is the work of Nilda Comas, the first Hispanic master sculptor featured in the hall.

Tags Bethune-Cookman University Franklin Roosevelt Kathy Castor Mary McLeod Bethune Nancy Pelosi Nancy Pelosi Val Demings Val Demings
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