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First African American memorialized at National Statuary Hall

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Mary McLeod Bethune, a civil rights activist who passed away in 1955, became the first African-American honored at the National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Wednesday. 

An 11-foot-tall marble statue of Bethune was unveiled at Statuary Hall, with the activist being one of two statues that represent the state of Florida. Nilda M. Comas of San Juan, Puerto Rico, sculpted the statue.

Bethune founded the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls in Daytona in 1904 and the National Council of Negro Women in 1935. She also served as the vice president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons.

According to the Architect of the Capitol, the statue depicts Bethune wearing academic clothing, representing her efforts to advance education and her multiple honorary doctorates. The sculpture also holds a black marble rose crafted independently of the statue, meant to symbolize her interracial and international cooperation efforts.

“She developed friendships with both First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and President Franklin D. Roosevelt, serving as a policy advisor to both,” the Architect of the Capitol website explains.

“As part of the U.S. delegation, she was the only Black woman at the 1945 founding conference of the United Nations.”

The Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church celebrated the statue installation, noting that Bethune was an active member of a Methodist church in D.C.

“Bethune was one of the most brilliant and impactful leaders of the 20th century who saw challenges and always responded with strategic insight and enduring solutions,” said Bishop LaTrelle Easterling in a statement.

“Throughout 60 years of public service her contributions to education, women’s and civil rights and equity transformed our nation and the world. Her intellectual prowess became the blueprint for the entire civil rights movement and contributed to The United Nations Charter.”

The Bethune statue replaced an earlier one of Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith, which was removed from Statuary Hall last year after the Florida legislature and Gov. Rick Scott approved the replacement in 2018. 

In recent years, some states have removed Confederate statues from Statuary Hall, with Virginia removing the Gen. Robert E. Lee statue in 2020 in Richmond, Virginia. 

According to The Washington Post, there are still nine Confederate statues in the hall, including former Confederate States Vice President Alexander Stephens of Georgia and the former Confederate States President Jefferson Davis of Mississippi.

In 2020, North Carolina greenlit the creation of a sculpture of the Rev. Billy Graham to replace the statue of former Gov. Charles Aycock, an avid segregationist. 

Last September, sculptor Chas Fagan told Spectrum News 1 that he is in the process of creating the Graham statue, which will be 7 feet tall and sit on a 3-foot-tall pedestal.

In addition to being a reporter, Michael Gryboski has also had a novel released titled The Enigma of Father Vera Daniel. For more information, click here.

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