The statue of Mary McLeod Bethune arrives at the National Statuary Hall of the United States Capitol
Tall and well-dressed, Bethune was an architect of the early civil rights movement. She was a powerful black woman, with access to the White House, when few black people were allowed in.
She was often greeted during her visits to the White House by her friend, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who warmly embraced Bethune at the door of the White House. The two women walked arm in arm along the circular walkway, in the White House, beyond the hostile gazes of Southern whites, many of whom made up the White House staff. Inside Bethune was talking privately with the president on “the problems of my people”.
“I have discussed my people’s issues with him in numerous confidential private conversations held in the President’s office at the White House,” Bethune wrote in an article titled “My Secret Talks With FDR,” which was published in 1949. in Ebony magazine. “I often expressed to him my impatience with the slowness of the democratic process.”
She recalls visiting Roosevelt one evening in 1943. “I felt especially distressed that day by reports I had received of blatant prejudice against black people seeking entry into the National Youth Administration in parts of the South,” Bethune wrote. “I called him directly that afternoon, and I must have sounded terribly agitated.”
Roosevelt invited her to dinner that evening. Bethune was escorted by an attendant to the president’s private elevator, she wrote in Ebony.
The president was waiting for him upstairs in his private office. Bethune found Roosevelt sitting in a chair by the door, holding “his famous cigarette holder”, she recalled. He waved to welcome Bethune, whose parents had been enslaved. She had become a famous educator, the founder of a college and one of the most politically influential figures in history.
“What can I do for you?” Bethune remembers Roosevelt’s request.
She spoke to the president about the continuing racism in the country and the lack of training centers for “blacks in some southern states and the refusal of state governments to allocate funds” to the National Youth Administration to help young blacks.
“I was visibly disturbed and made the president realize how I felt,” Bethune wrote. “I grabbed his arm and clung to him. “Black people need all the strength you can give them, Mr. President, to open opportunities for them.” ”
Roosevelt, she recalled, “looked at me earnestly for a few seconds, then said, ‘Mme. Béthune. I won’t disappoint you.
A statue of Bethune, representing the state of Florida, will soon be installed in the collection of the National Statuary Hall of the US Capitol Building.
Bethune will be the first black American to represent any state in the collection, according to a statement from Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.). Each state has two statues in the hall, and the one in Bethune will replace that of a Confederate general who had represented Florida there since 1922 before being removed in September. (A statue of Rosa Parks in the lobby was commissioned by Congress and does not represent any particular state.)
Bethune’s statue was carved from a large piece of marble quarried from the Italian Alps. “The statue is more than a commemoration,” said Jill Watts, professor of history at California State University-San Marcos and author of “The Black Cabinet: The Untold Story of African Americans and Politics during the Age of Roosevelt.”
Watts, who spoke at a U.S. Capitol Historical Society roundtable in January, said Bethune’s statue represents his activism and is “an extension of her political presence that she established in this ‘Black Cabinet’ period.” Watts said Bethune was “essential to the Black Cabinet,” a self-organized advisory group to FDR.
According to the sculptor, the Béthune statue is carved from the finest marble in the world. On its pedestal are inscribed Bethune’s name and a quote for which she is famous: “Invest in the human soul. Who knows, maybe it’s a diamond in the rough.
The training school would merge with the Cookman Institute in Jacksonville, Florida in 1923 to become the Daytona-Cookman Collegiate Institute, which in 1931 was renamed Bethune-Cookman College. In 2007, it became Bethune-Cookman University after adding a graduate program.
“Dr. Bethune was a visionary, entrepreneur, business executive, friend, and advisor to five U.S. presidents, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt, President Calvin Coolidge, President Herbert Hoover, and President Harry S. Truman. Bethune-Cookman University says on its website. “She was a close friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, who actually had her own guest room in Dr. Bethune’s house.”
The statue represents Bethune holding a black rose. “Dr. Bethune was captivated by the beauty of a rose with a particular dark hue,” the Béthune statuary project explains on his website. She often called her students her “black roses”.
The statue also depicts Bethune holding a cane which, according to the Statuary Project, symbolizes a gift from President Roosevelt.
Mary Jane McLeod was born on July 10, 1875, near Mayesville, SC, according to the National Park Service, which operates the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House, a National Historic Site in Washington.
Her father, Samuel McLeod, and her mother, Patsy McIntosh McLeod, were born slaves. As a child, Mary attended the Presbyterian Mission School in Mayesville, according to her resume. She graduated in 1893 from Scotia Seminary in Concord, North Carolina. In 1898 she married Albertus Bethune, and they had a son. Mary wanted to be a missionary, but the mission told her they were no longer sending black Americans to Africa.
In 1895 she began teaching at the Haines Institute in Augusta, Georgia. She taught at schools in South Carolina and Florida before founding Daytona Normal and Industrial School and serving as president of Bethune-Cookman College from 1904 to 1942.
“At the time, it was one of the few institutions below the Mason-Dixon line where African Americans could receive something more than a high school diploma,” said the National Park Service says on its website.
According to the Women’s History Museum, Bethune became the most senior black woman in government when Roosevelt appointed her in 1936 as director of black affairs for the National Youth Administration.
A year later, Bethune organized a conference on “The Problems of the Negro and Negro Youth”, according to the Women’s History Museum. In 1940, she became vice-president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She helped create the Women’s Army Corps and ensured his racial integration, according to the museum, and in 1945, she was the only woman of color at the founding conference of the United Nations.
Bethune, who was also an entrepreneur, co-owned a beach resort in Daytona, Florida, and co-founded a life insurance company. She also founded the Mary McLeod Hospital and Training School for Nurses in Daytona Beach, which, according to Bethune-Cookman University, was “the only such school that served African-American women on the East Coast”.
Bethune and Carter G. Woodson were friends, and Bethune became the first female president of Woodson’s organization, the Association for the Study of Black Life and History.
In 1927, Bethune met Eleanor Roosevelt when Roosevelt invited her to a meeting of the United States National Council of Women, according to the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site. Roosevelt was embarrassed when the white women attending the meeting refused to sit next to Bethune, the only black woman invited.
But then Sara Delano Roosevelt, Franklin’s mother, whom Bethune would later describe as “that great old lady”, took her by the arm and placed her in the “seat of honor” to Eleanor Roosevelt’s right.
“I also remember how the faces of the black servants lit up with pride when they saw me seated in the center of this imposing gathering,” Bethune later wrote. “From that moment my heart turned to [Sara] Roosevelt. I visited her home several times afterward, and our friendship became one of the most treasured relationships of my life.
Through this relationship, she became friends with Eleanor Roosevelt. Their friendship “quickly matured into a close and understanding mutual feeling.” According to Bethune-Cookman University, Bethune advised Eleanor Roosevelt to use her influence to integrating the civilian pilot training curriculum and introducing it to historically black schools, leading to the graduation of some of the nation’s first black pilots.
During their evening meeting in 1943 at the White House, Bethune and Roosevelt spoke for 40 minutes, “addressing subjects such as anti-Negro discrimination and the progress made by our forces in the war abroad”, wrote Bethune.
Roosevelt promised Bethune that he would implement programs to help train blacks. “Your people and all minorities will have their chance,” Bethune recalled, saying Roosevelt.
As she left the room, Bethune wrote, Roosevelt shook her hand.
“Mr. President”, Béthune remembers telling him, “ordinary people feel they have someone in the While house who cares.”