Mary McLeod Bethune’s statue in the U.S. Capitol will showcase ‘the best of who we are as Floridians’

Mary McLeod Bethune, 1915. State Archives of Florida

Gov. Ron DeSantis has asked officials in Washington D.C., to replace a statue of a Confederate general who represents Florida in the U.S. Capitol with one of educator Mary McLeod Bethune – some three years after the Florida Legislature authorized a switch.

According to the governor’s office, Bethune – founder of what would become Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach – would be the first African American represented in the National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol.

Her statute is expected to be completed and installed next year.

“Florida is proud to submit this request,” the governor wrote in a letter to Acting Architect of the Capitol Christine Merdon. “Born on July 10, 1875, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune was a prominent Floridian, a visionary, influential educator, leader and civil rights activist who became one of our nation’s most notable figures. Her legacy endured and will continue to inspire future generations.”

Each state contributes two statues of prominent citizens for display in the hall or elsewhere within the Capitol.

Florida’s representatives have been John Gorrie, who invented an early form of air conditioning in Apalachicola, and Edmund Kirby Smith, a St. Augustine-born general who commanded Confederate forces west of the Mississippi River following the fall of Vicksburg. He surrendered the last armed Confederate forces in Galveston, Texas, on June 2, 1865.

A campaign to remove the statute – Confederate memorials generally – gathered force following the 2015 mass shootings at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., by a 17-year-old white supremacist. Nine people died in that episode.

The Legislature voted in 2016 to authorize the search for a prominent Floridian to replace Smith in the hall.

A citizens’ panel settled upon Bethune, and the Legislature voted in 2018 to request the change. Then-Gov. Rick Scott signed the bill but did nothing to formally notify authorities in Washington. As of Wednesday, Smith was still listed as a Florida representative on the hall’s website.

DeSantis, who took office in January, finally did on Wednesday – the 144th anniversary of Bethune’s birthday.

“This is an important milestone in the storied legacy of Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, whose influence and ability to convene individuals for the common good across racial and political lines made her an asset to the City of Daytona Beach and the nation, at large, as she advised U.S. Presidents Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt,” Bethune-Cookman Vice President Clifford Porter said in a written statement distributed by the governor’s office.

The Mary McLeod Bethune Statuary Fund, set up to finance the new statute, has reportedly raised nearly $400,000 to that end. Sculptor Nilda Comas is slated to design the statue. “This is a proud day for Florida and for the community that Dr. Bethune called home,” said Bob Lloyd, the fund’s chairman.

A spokesman for Scott told the Phoenix in March that the office was unaware of his failure to sign the letter authorizing the go-ahead for the statue, and said he would investigate. The office has yet to offer an explanation.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, a Tampa Democrat, urged DeSantis to act during a meeting in the governor’s office in March, even providing a sample letter to send to Washington. “It’s really a ministerial step, but it’s an important step,” Castor said Wednesday during a telephone interview from the U.S. Capitol.

“What a thrill to replace an obscure Confederate war general with a civil rights leader and educator,” she said. That Florida will contribute the first African American female to the collection is “just fantastic, and so important to represent our diverse state.”

Meanwhile, the Smith statue has been tucked away in “hidden alcove with a few other ne’er-do-wells” in the Capitol Visitor Center. “You wouldn’t see him on your typical tour,” she said. “I would think that Mary McLeod Bethune would warrant being right there in Statuary Hall, in a very prominent position.”

 

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