Statue of Mary McLeod Bethune Unveiled in Daytona Beach Before Going to the US Capitol’s Statuary Hall

Mary McLeod Bethune

On Monday, October 11, 2021 Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune and Florida made history. The sculpture of the beloved educator and activist was unveiled in the News-Journal Center in Daytona prior to making the trip to Washington DC where it will replace the statue of Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith. Smith had been born in St. Augustine but fought in the Civil War on the side of the Confederacy. Why he was ever selected for this honor is rarely discussed, but there is a delicious irony that the man who fought for slavery is being replaced by a Black educator and activist who was the daughter of former slaves.

Dr. Bethune will be the first Black person to have a state-commissioned statue in the US Capitol’s Statuary Hall. The public is invited to view the 11-foot tall marble likeness until mid December of 2021 when it will travel to Washington DC. Tickets are available at Viewings will be held seven days a week. 

The statue itself is also notable for another reason. Artist Nilda Comas is the first Hispanic master sculptor to create a statue for the National Statuary Hall State Collection. She sculpted it from the largest and last piece of statuary marble that will come from the same quarry in Italy as the marble of Michelangelo.

The statue depicts Bethune wearing a cap and gown denoting her commitment to education, but she also holds in her hand a black rose created from black Spanish marble. In 1927 Bethune had visited Spain and saw a garden filled with variegated roses. Her attention was captured by a stunning black rose which she felt epitomized the beauty of diversity and acceptance of individuality. Her students became black roses, beautiful and filled with promise.

Although Dr. Bethune is famous and much loved in Daytona, she is less well-known outside of the state that honors her. Born in South Carolina in 1875 and she initially wanted to be a missionary in Africa. But no one would accept her application. It was deemed inappropriate for a Black woman to go to Africa and work with its people. Instead, Dr. Bethune channeled her energy and determination into establishing the Daytona Beach Literary and Industrial School for Training Negro Girls. The school eventually merged with the all-male Cookman Institute to form Bethune-Cookman College in 1929.

Dr. Bethune would go on to become advisor to Presidents Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman, and a friend to Eleanor Roosevelt. She was a civil rights activist long before there was a movement.

A bronze casting of the statue was made for permanent display in Daytona in the Daytona Beach Riverfront Esplanade Park. Visitors to Daytona can also see her home located on the grounds of the school she founded and where she is buried. Although currently closed due to COVID, admission to the two-story home which has been maintained as it was when Dr. Bethune lived there.


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