This statue of Mary McLeod Bethune will soon make history at the U.S. Capitol

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Members of the public view the newly unveiled statue of Mary McLeod Bethune at the News-Journal Center in Daytona Beach on Oct. 12, 2021. It’s slated to move to the U.S. Capitol Building’s National Statuary Hall early next year.

Nigel Cook/News-Journal/USA TODAY NETWORK via Reuters Co

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Nigel Cook/News-Journal/USA TODAY NETWORK via Reuters Co

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Bethune, the daughter of formerly enslaved people, was an influential educator and activist who — among her many accomplishments — founded the National Council of Negro Women, advised multiple U.S. presidents and created a boarding school for Black children that would later become Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach.

The 11-foot statue, which weighs more than 6,000 lbs., was sculpted out of the largest (and last) piece of statuary marble from Michelangelo’s quarry in Italy. It was created by artist Nilda Comas, who was chosen from a field of 1,600 applicants and is the first Hispanic master sculptor to create a statue for the National Statuary Hall State Collection.

Floridians can see the statue in person and learn more about Bethune’s life at a free exhibit that will be held at Daytona State College’s News-Journal Center through early December.

«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,» Castor said. «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.»

A symbolic statue for an American icon

With a subject and sculptor secured, the creation of the actual statue involved significant fundraising and research efforts.

The Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune Project has spent years raising private funds for a marble statue for the Capitol, as well as another statue for a local park, a feature-length documentary and a K-12 curriculum module.

Bob Lloyd, the fund’s board treasurer, told CNN that the nonprofit had raised about $800,000 in private donations. That money went toward the marble statue and a bronze replica that’s been slated for a new riverfront park in Daytona Beach.

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Before she started sculpting, Comas conducted intensive research at state and national archives, the State of Florida Archives and Bethune-Cookman University.

At Monday’s unveiling, she called the four-year process «a beautiful journey.»

«I just fell in love with Dr. Bethune and everything that she did,» Comas said, according to Orlando NBC affiliate WESH.

The statue depicts Bethune wearing a cap and gown and a pearl necklace, holding a black rose in one hand and a walking stick in the other. She’s standing in front of a stack of books, with a warm smile and what one local reporter described as eyes that «capture wisdom [and] kindness.»

The base of the pedestal is inscribed with her name, her home state, birth and death dates, as well as one of her most famous quotes: «Invest in the human soul. Who knows, it may be a diamond in the rough.»

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Educator and civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune, photographed in January 1943.

Gordon Parks/Library of Congress

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Gordon Parks/Library of Congress

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis officially requested in 2019 — on the 144th anniversary of Bethune’s birthday — that she represent Florida in the national statue collection.

«Dr. Bethune takes the place of an obscure Confederate general who has represented Florida in the state collection since 1922 and will be one of only a few women to represent a state in the 100-statue collection,» Castor said.

Florida is not the only state to make such a change — Virginia is replacing its statue of the Confederate General Robert E. Lee with civil rights icon Barbara Johns, and there are ongoing efforts by some lawmakers to increase the number of women represented in the Capitol and remove Confederate statues from display.

There are just four other Black Americans represented in statues throughout the Capitol (and about a dozen others in paintings and murals): Frederick Douglass, Rosa Parks, Sojourner Truth and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

  • statue
  • representation of women
  • U.S. Capitol

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