Florida civil rights icon and educator to be honored at U.S. Capitol

The daughter of former slaves, influential Black educator, civil and women’s rights leader – Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune — will soon be the first Black person to have a statue on permanent display representing a state at the U.S. Capitol Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C.

While there are statues and busts of other prominent African Americans on display – including Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks – Floridian McLeod Bethune is the first to represent a state. Each state is afforded two statues in Statuary Hall. Her sculpture is currently on display at the News-Journal Center in Daytona Beach until December 12 before heading to the nation’s capital.

McLeod Bethune was born in 1875 to former slaves in South Carolina. She married, moved to Georgia, and then to the Daytona area where in 1904, she founded the Daytona Normal and Industrial School for Negro Girls with $1.50, discarded crates and elderberry juice for ink.

It rapidly expanded and eventually became Bethune-Cookman University, currently one of Florida’s five historically Black colleges and universities. She also served as the university’s president for several years, and its library became the state’s first free library accessible to Black Floridians.

McLeod Bethune also established the National Council of Negro Women to combat segregation and discrimination, founded the first hospital for the Black community in Daytona, co-founded the United Negro College Fund, and was the sole African American woman to officially be part of the U.S. delegation that created the United Nations charter. Her former homes in Daytona Beach and Washington, D.C. are designated as national historic sites and landmarks. She died of a heart attack in 1955 at age 79.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) posted about the move on Twitter.

Castor added in a statement: “I am grateful to the many friends who I’ve worked alongside for years in order to reach this momentous moment. 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.”

The marble for the 11-foot statue, which weighs more than 6,000 pounds, was taken out of the same quarry in Italy once used by Michelangelo. The statue includes an inscription of one of Bethune McLeod’s most famous quotes – “Invest in the human soul. Who knows, it may be a diamond in the rough.”

The sculptor, Puerto Rico-born and Fort Lauderdale-based Nilda Comas, makes history as the first Latina to create a sculpture for the National Statuary Hall. Comas fashioned McLeod Bethune in a cap and gown to symbolize her lifelong commitment to education and includes a depiction of staked books.

Bethune McLeod’s sculpture replaces one depicting Civil War general Edmund Kirby Smith, who surrendered the last military force of the Confederacy and was the Civil War’s last surviving general. His statue had been at the U.S. Capitol complex since 1922.

The Florida legislature voted in 2016 to replace Smith’s statue. Bethune McLeod was selected from a list of prominent Floridians that included Publix Super Markets founder George Jenkins and environmental activist Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

Fabian Osorio is a Colombian-Canadian senior student at FIU pursuing a bachelor's degree in broadcast media and a master's in Spanish language journalism. He has extensive experience in coordinating social media platforms, writing, photography, and videography. After completing his bachelor’s degree, he wants to work for the Hispanic television network in Miami, becoming a strong voice for the Hispanic community.