U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall Collection Will Get Its First State-Commissioned Statue of a Black American

A statue of educator and civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune will replace a statue of a Confederate general

Mary McLeod Bethune
Mary McLeod Bethune in 1949 from the Carl Van Vechten Photographs collection at the Library of Congress

The Statuary Hall Collection in the U.S. Capitol includes two statues from each of the 50 states, depicting notable people in the states' histories. Most of the collection, displayed in National Statuary Hall and throughout the Capitol, depict white men. Now, for the first time, a state-commissioned statue representing a black American will join their ranks.

On Monday, Florida Governor Rick Scott signed a bill that will replace one of his state's statues with that of civil rights activist and educator Mary Mcleod Bethune, reports the Daytona Beach News-Journal. The departing statute is of the Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith. The News-Journal reports that the replacement was prompted by the nation-wide reevaluation of Confederate memorials following the racially charged murders of nine people in a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015.

Bethune was born Mary Jane McLeod in 1875, the 15th of 17 children to Samuel and Patsy McIntosh McLeod, who had been formerly enslaved on the McIntosh and McLeod plantations in Maysville, South Carolina, according to BlackPast.org. Bethune was the only one of her siblings to attend school, a five mile walk she made every day, according to PBS.org. On scholarships, she finished her schooling at the Scotia Seminary for Girls in Concord, North Carolina, and the Bible Institute for Home and Foreign Missions (now the Moody Bible Institute) in Chicago.

Originally, Bethune wanted to be a missionary in Africa, but she changed her mind, realizing that "Africans in American needed Christ and school just as much as Negros in Africa," as she later wrote according to BlackPast.org. "My life work lay not in Africa but in my own country."

The educator went on to found a school for girls in Daytona, Florida, which eventually merged with the Cookman Institute for Men in Jacksonville to become the Bethune-Cookman College in 1923. She served as the college's first president until 1942. During that time, in 1935, she founded the National Council of Negro Women. She also served as an advisor to President Franklin Roosevelt and was a friend to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, according to the National Women's History Museum's website.

Bethune's views on education were not without controversy. "My people needed literacy," she said, according to PBS.org, "but they needed even more to learn the simples of farming, of making decent homes, of health and plain cleanliness." Her focus on vocational education rather than high learning earned her censure from Ida B. Wells and others.

But Bethune still garnered respect and acclaim for her efforts. She worked to end lynching and discrimination and was elected vice president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons (NAACP) in 1940.

According to the Orlando Sentinel, the bill to put the statue of Bethune in the U.S. Capitol received nearly unanimous support by the Florida House and Senate.

Editor's note, March 26, 2018: This piece has been updated to clarify that Mary Mcleod Bethune's inclusion makes her the first black American to have a state-commissioned monument in the Statuary Hall Collection. A full-length statue of Rosa Parks, which has stood in Statuary Hall since 2013, was commissioned by Congress to mark her centennial birthday.