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Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune "epitomizes the values we hold dear"

Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune "epitomizes the values we hold dear"

Inclusivity Social Justice

During her extraordinary life, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune walked with giants while empowering thousands of Black children and students that society overlooked and oppressed.

On Wednesday morning, that life of unselfish service and faith was acknowledged with one of the nation's highest honors. The 8-foot, 6,300-pound marble statue of Dr. Bethune in an educator’s cap and gown was formally unveiled at Statuary Hall inside the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.

Multiple national leaders, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Republican House Leader Kevin McCarthy, extolled the woman and Methodist who, in 1904, founded the Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls.

It was the mustard seed that grew from an initial class of five girls into what we know today as Bethune-Cookman University. The University and the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church have a long-standing partnership. In 1931, the Methodist Church helped broker a deal between Dr. Bethune's growing school and the Cookman School for Boys.

Bethune-Cookman College was born. In 2007, the school achieved university status.

Each state is allowed to designate two individuals for statues representing them in Statuary Hall. Dr. Bethune's statue is the first commissioned by a state of a Black American in Statuary Hall.

However, there are also statues of Frederick Douglass and Rosa Parks and busts of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sojourner Truth elsewhere in the Capitol.

Dr. Bethune replaces the likeness of Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith. In 2016, Florida lawmakers decided that it was inappropriate to keep Smith there, and in 2018, Dr. Bethune was formally chosen to replace him.

"How poetic that Dr. Bethune replaces a little-known Confederate general traitor for a civil rights hero in the Capitol of the United States," Pelosi said to applause from those watching the hour-long ceremony.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa gives her remarks at Statuary Hall.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa helped lead the push to honor Dr. Bethune.

"Well, I am proud to be a Floridian this morning," she said.

"Because the people of the state of Florida have sent a great educator and civil rights leader, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, to represent our dynamic and diverse state—the first to be represented by a Black American in National Statuary Hall. Dr. Bethune epitomizes the values we hold dear."

She was born on July 10, 1875, in Mayesville, S.C., the 15th child of former slaves. She began working in the fields at age 5. Her parents moved to Florida about 50 miles south of Jacksonville, and it was there that young Mary McLeod began to pursue justice and education on parallel tracks.

Neither was easy to obtain. Blacks received little to no formal education then, and racial justice was often a foreign concept. That didn't stop her.

U.S. Rep. Michael Waltz of Florida's 6th Congressional District noted, "After she moved to Florida, she saw a need," he said. 

"The Black workers that were building the railroad, the Flagler Railroad that one day allowed Florida to be developed, weren't getting an education. She saw a need, and she addressed it."

She created her school with $1.50 in working capital on land that was an abandoned garbage dump. 

"How poetic that Dr. Bethune replaces a little-known Confederate general traitor for a civil rights hero in the Capitol of the United States." - House Speaker Nancy Pelosi

"It wasn't without challenges, though," Waltz said. "In one of the stories, the K.K.K., after the school was up and running, came marching on the small girls' school with torches, with robes, on horseback.

"She already had a plan. She told her teachers to disperse, she hid her students, and she stood alone at the gate and stared them down, stood them down. In my military career, I've seen some tough cookies, some tough women. I guarantee you this was the toughest one in the Hall today."

U.S. Rep. Frederica S. Wilson of Florida's 24th Congressional District talked about the inspiration Dr. Bethune's life provided for her and uncounted others.

"Today, we are rewriting the history we want to share with future generations," she said. "We are placing a person, a patriot, and a vision, with the symbol of hope and inspiration—one woman.

"Because today, we place Mary McLeod Bethune in Statuary Hall, in her rightful place among our nation's giants in history. I cannot think of anyone more befitting to occupy this place of grandeur."

Joe Henderson is News Content Editor for

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