For many cultures and countries, working through heavy social issues like racism or genocide means confronting the ugly scars that have been left behind by brutal histories. In the case of the United States, this means coming to terms with its history of slavery and the systemic oppression of peoples based on race.
Though uncomfortable and painful, some states are doing the hard work of addressing racism by taking down symbols of an oppressive legacy (such as depictions of Confederate figures) and sometimes even replacing them with statues of civil rights activists. Highlighting individuals who represent those who have so far been left out of the history books can shift the narrative in important ways.
Last Wednesday, another step was taken to bolster the voice of peripheral communities, with the unveiling of a statue of Mary McLeod Bethune.
Who was Mary McLeod Bethune?
Bethune was born in 1875 to two former slaves in a humble cabin in South Carolina. She was one of 16 siblings but was the only one in her family who was able to attend a mission school (the only ones Black students were permitted to enroll in at the time).
She continued her studies at a seminary in North Carolina, then taught in Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida where she would start her own boarding school in 1904. Though this is already an impressive biography, Bethune did not stop there.
She became a civil rights activist and served as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s director of Negro Affairs for the National Youth Administration. She also became a close friend of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Bethune was also an advisor to President Roosevelt as a part of his unofficial “Black Cabinet.”
In addition to these impressive accomplishments, Bethune founded the Daytona Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls, which eventually became the Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach. She also helped start the United Negro College Fund before she passed away in 1955.
Finally, the life and resiliency of Mary McLeod Bethune has been memorialized as a statue in her likeness included in the National Statuary Hall collection. The statue was unveiled last week in the U.S. Capitol. Her statue is the first of a Black American to stand in the National Statuary Hall collection.
What is the National Statuary Hall collection?
Starting in 1864, each state in the United States of America has been invited to send two statues of esteemed citizens meant to represent it in the U.S. Capitol. These statues make up the National Statuary Hall collection.
Since the turn of the century, states have been permitted to remove and replace existing statues with new ones. While some states have chosen to do so, none of the new additions were of Black Americans—until last Wednesday, when Bethune’s statue was presented to the collection by the state of Florida.
Bethune’s statue replaces another statue that depicted Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith, which was removed in 2021.
Bethune: the first of many
Mary McLeod Bethune’s statue is the first likeness of a Black American to be welcomed into the National Statuary Hall collection, but there are already plans for a few more to join the Bethune statue in the coming years.
Virginia, for instance, removed its statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in 2020 and plans to replace it with one of Barbara Johns, a civil rights leader.
In 2019, Arkansas also announced plans to replace both its statues, one of which depicts white supremacist James Paul Clarke. The other depicts Confederate sympathizer Uriah Milton Rose. These will be replaced by statues of civil rights activists Daisy Bates and musician Johnny Cash, though for now, both old statues still stand in the Capitol.
It is also worth noting that though the Bethune statue is the first of a Black American in the Statuary Hall collection, other statues of Black Americans already stand in the Capitol Building. There are statues of Frederick Douglass and Rosa Parks, as well as busts of Martin Luther King Jr. and Sojourner Truth.