Mary McLeod Bethune's statue, the first state statue of a Black woman in Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

By H.R. Harris,
Special to the AFRO

Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of the National Council for Negro Women made history once again at the U.S. Capitol this week.  A tall marble statue of the educator, philanthropist, humanitarian, civil rights and woman’s rights activist was unveiled in her honor at the Capitol’s Statuary Hall. 

“On behalf of everyone at Bethune Cookman University our hearts are rejoicing,” said Dr. Lawrence M. Drake, Interim President of Bethune Cookman University during the July 13 unveiling ceremony.

The event attracted leaders from both parties including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA.) Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA.), Rep. Val Demings (D-Fl.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fl.).

“Dr. Bethune wasn’t just a great Floridian she was a great American,” said Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fl.) during the unveiling ceremony, a result of rare bi-partisanship between Democrat and Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

“This morning, our nation will write a new chapter in history by placing the statue of education pioneer & civil rights advocate Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune in National Statuary Hall,” said Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL.24) in a tweet. 

Born free in 1875 in Mayesville, South Carolina to former slaves, Bethune was the only child out of 17 able to attend school. Her early educational foundation led her to the profession of teaching. Bethune taught across the south in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.  

In Sumter, South Carolina, Bethune met her husband, Albertus Bethune, and within a year gave birth to their son, Albert. The family moved to Palatka, Florida, where she established a missionary school. 

In 1904, Bethune moved again to Daytona Beach and established the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls. The school grew from five girls to a high school.

In 1923, this school merged with the all-male Cookman Institute of Jacksonville, Florida, and in 1931, the school became accredited as Bethune-Cookman College. Bethune became the first Black American woman to serve as a college president. 

In 1936, Bethune also began serving as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s director of Negro Affairs for the National Youth Administration. 

Charles Duke Smith, a member of the Bethune Cookman Class of 1970, was among the Bethune Cookman Alumni who traveled to Washington for a series of events celebrating the Bethune statue unveiling. 

“What an incomparable capstone to the life and legacy of a woman whose vision to educate young African American children began 118 years ago on a Florida garbage dump,” Smith said. 

 “Her life’s work included work as an educator, activist, presidential advisor, founder of the National Council of Negro Women, and as a leader of the National Association of Colored Women and the Florida NAACP.”

Other statues of African Americans in the halls of Congress include Frederick Douglass, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and Sojourner Truth. 

However, Bethune’s is the first Black American in Statuary Hall representing a state of the Union. Since 1864, each state has placed the statues of two people in the Halls of Congress.   In 2000, states were given the opportunity to replace statues. A number of states have replaced the statues of confederate war heroes. 

In 2018, former Florida Governor Rick Scott signed state legislation, authorizing removal of  the statue of Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith from Statuary Hall. Now a number of other southern states are doing the same.

Bethune founded the National Council of Negro Women in 1935 as an “organization of organizations” whose membership has grown to more than 2 million people nationwide. NCNW has been chaired by nationally and internationally known black women activists and advocates, including Dorothy B. Ferebee and Vivian C. Mason, Dorothy Height, who led the organization for 40 years until her death in 1997, and Johnetta B. Cole who completed her service to NCNW in 2022. Thelma T. Daley currently served NCNS as national chair. 

The unveiling of the statue capped off a series of events by alumni Bethune-Cookman University that included a service at Asbury United Methodist Church on the anniversary of Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune’s 147th Birthday, July 10, 2022. 

There was also a reception at the Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial where a bronze statue honoring educator and activist is located in Northeast DC.  Erected in 1973, the monument is the first statue erected on public land in the nation’s capital to honor an African American.

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