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A high honor for the extraordinary life of Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune

A high honor for the extraordinary life of Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune

Inclusivity Social Justice


This is the first in a series of written stories and multimedia presentations FLUMC.org has planned leading to the official dedication at Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C. of the statue of Florida educator and civil rights icon Mary McLeod Bethune. We plan at least one story a month about her enormous impact on Florida and Methodism as we celebrate her amazing life.

The statues in the aptly named Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C. celebrate the heritage of some of the most impactful people in United States history. As visitors to this national shrine stare upon their larger-than-life statues, they leave with a sense of awe. 

The images include former U.S. Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, Gerald R. Ford, and James Garfield. George Washington, the father of our country, is there, along with Ronald Reagan.

Thomas Edison is there, as is Ethan Allen, Will Rogers, Helen Keller—each state can designate two individuals to represent them.

And on July 13, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, the 15th child of former slaves, will take her rightful place among the giants of our nation. That's the date chosen to unveil the 8-foot tall, 6,130-pound work of art chiseled by sculptor Nilda Comas out of marble from an Italian quarry and named "The Black Rose."

That quarry was used by another famous sculptor—Michaelangelo—back in the day. Creating a marble sculpture is considered one of the highest honors a person can receive.

Dr. Bethune is the first Black woman representing a state to have a statue in this place of honor. Rosa Parks is also enshrined, representing the Civil Rights movement.

In 2018, Florida lawmakers unanimously approved replacing the statue of Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith with Dr. Bethune.

And why not?

She was an educator, civil rights activist, and entrepreneur grounded by faith and her commitment to the Methodist Church. In 1904, at age 29, she founded the Daytona Literary and Industrial Training Institute for Negro Girls in Daytona Beach. 

Mary McLeod Bethune's dream of the Daytona Literary and Industrial Training Institute for Negro Girls comes alive.

She started with $1.50 in working capital.

We know her creation today as Bethune-Cookman University.

She was close friends with Eleanor Roosevelt, whose husband—President Franklin Delano Roosevelt—often sought Dr. Bethune's counsel. Dr. Bethune was the only African American woman to help the U.S. delegation that created the United Nations charter.

She impacted and inspired countless thousands of lives. One of them was Rev. Dr. Geraldine McClellan, a Bethune-Cookman graduate with a legacy of service to the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church. 

"We were all Mary's children," she said in an earlier interview. "She chose us when she made the charge to invest in our lives. Stepping out in faith, she said, 'Who knows, it might be a diamond in the rough.'

"Bethune-Cookman College (now a university) was that diamond in the rough where Mary's children could prepare themselves to be doctors, lawyers, teachers, musicians, professional athletes, and much more."

Capturing all that was a challenge for Comas after being commissioned to create the statue.
She was selected from more than 1,600 applicants. Comas was the only woman among the ten finalists and the only sculptor working with marble.

The finished product shows Dr. Bethune in a graduation cap and gown, smiling benignly. She is holding a cane that represents the one President Roosevelt gave her. She is holding a black rose, symbolic of the black rose she received from Switzerland when she joined President Roosevelt to
sign the agreement for the United Nations.

"I wanted to create a sculpture that showed what she accomplished, and at the age where she had to accomplish the most. So, she needed to be at the age when she had already been in Washington, D.C.," she told reporter Talia Blake of National Public Radio station WMFE in Orlando.

"You can see that she's maybe 70 years old or so. She has a lot of confidence the way she's standing, and she has a slight smile of confidence, and of friendliness and satisfaction of what she had accomplished."

Congresswoman Kathy Castor (center left) joins other dignitaries at the unveiling of the statue in Daytona Beach.

Comas finished the work in a small Italian town where she lives part of the time. It was transported to Daytona Beach, where it was on display for several weeks, and then to Dr. Bethune's small hometown in South Carolina.

Moving the giant statue was a feat of engineering.It was secured by straps looped around the statue before a giant hook attached to a hydraulic crane lifted the statue off its pedestal and lowered it slowly into a wooden crate. Workers loaded onto a flatbed truck for its next journey.

Dr. Bethune will still have a presence in Daytona Beach, though. Comas was commissioned to create a bronze statue similar to the one headed to Washington to stand in a special plaza in a downtown park.

U.S. Congresswoman Kathy Castor of Tampa was a leader in the effort to recognize Dr. Bethune's extraordinary life. She was present when the statue was unveiled in Daytona Beach.

"Dr. Bethune embodies the very best of the Sunshine State – Floridians and all Americans can take great pride in being represented by the great educator and civil rights icon," she said.

"This exhibit in Daytona Beach – Dr. Bethune's home and the home of Bethune-Cookman University – provides an important and special opportunity to learn about Dr. Bethune's life, and I am glad that she is being rightfully recognized here in Florida before she travels to her place of honor and recognition by all of America in the U.S. Capitol."

Joe Henderson is News Content Editor for FLUMC.org


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