The civil rights leader and educator Mary McLeod Bethune will be the first African American figure to be honored with a monument in the National Statuary Hall in the US Capitol. Fittingly, Bethune will replace a Confederate general.
Bethune was born to former slaves on July 10, 1875, the 15th of her parents’ 17 children. In 1904, she founded the Daytona Normal and Industrial School for Negro Girls, which had enrolled 250 students in just two years. Eventually, the school became Bethune-Cookman University, one of Florida’s five historically black colleges and universities.
In 1935, Bethune went on to establish the National Council of Negro Women to combat racial segregation and discrimination. President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed her director of the National Youth Administration’s Division of Negro Affairs the following year.
Bethune “was communicating a century ago an idea that is still an important message to our youth, that education can open an amazing number of doors for you and it is critical for a bright and successful future,” Nancy Lohman, a board member of Bethune-Cookman University, told the Hometown News Volusia. “She was an amazing woman that looked past the racial divide for the sake of educating our youth. She is most deserving to be in Statuary Hall.”
Each state has two statues in Statuary Hall. Bethune’s will be one of just ten women to appear among the 100 figures, and she will replace Edmund Kirby Smith, who surrendered the last military force of the Confederacy and was the Civil War’s last surviving general. The 1922 statue is the work of C. Adrian Pillars, who also created Florida’s second statue, of physician, scientist, inventor, and humanitarian John Gorrie.
The question of what to do with Confederate monuments has been highly controversial in recent months. But Florida lawmakers presented a near united front, with the state House of Representatives voting 111 to one in favor of the resolution in February. (Jacksonville Republican Jay Flant was the lone abstaining vote.) The legislature had voted to remove Smith back in 2016, in response to the 2015 Charleston shooting that resulted in the deaths of nine African Americans in South Carolina. (Smith is one of 12 men who fought for or defended the Confederacy memorialized in Statuary Hall.)
Governor Rick Scott signed the bill into law on Monday, along with 29 other pieces of legislation, Orlando Weekly reported.
“Bethune’s life and values illustrate the best of Florida,” State Senator Perry Thurston, who sponsored the bill, told the Daytona Times. “Choosing her likeness for the hall sends a powerful signal to the world that Floridians recognize our state’s rich history and its present-day diversity.”
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