Senate Committee Wants Mary McLeod Bethune Statue In U.S. Capitol

Apr 14, 2017

Florida lawmakers want to put a statue of Mary McLeod Bethune in the U.S. Capitol. But the internationally renowned educator and activist isn’t the only contender.

Mary McLeod Bethune.
Credit Florida Memory / https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/152989

Mary McLeod Bethune was a standard-bearer for black education and an advisor to five U.S. presidents. And she’s the top pick to replace confederate general Edmund Kirby Smith in the national statuary hall. If lawmakers get their way, the daughter of former slaves would represent the state, instead of a slave owner. Here’s Bethune speaking with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in 1949.

“It is remarkable, Mrs. Roosevelt, how during the past fifteen years the doors of interracial opportunity have opened to us,” Bethune said.

Bethune started a school for girls in Daytona Beach, which has since evolved into Bethune-Cookman University. She met Eleanor Roosevelt through her work organizing women's groups and fighting for equality, economic opportunity and civic engagement. She told Roosevelt the future of a society depends on the future of women.

“In these times, Mrs. Roosevelt, we feel that in order to achieve the goal of civil and human rights for all, it is necessary for women of all races and creeds to know and understand each other,” Bethune said.

"In order to achieve the goal of civil and human rights for all, it is necessary for women of all races and creeds to know and understand each other."

Lawmakers voted last year to remove the statue of General Smith. The move came after Representative Jose Diaz (R-Miami) toured the nation's capitol. He was surprised to see the Civil War officer in full uniform next to Florida's other statue of Dr. John Gorrie, who invented air conditioning and refrigeration.

Lawmakers say their issue with Smith isn't his support for the confederacy but his tangential relationship with the state. He was born in St. Augustine, but spent most of his life in Tennessee. Nonetheless, the decision to remove the statue came at a time when state and local governments across the country were lowering Confederate flags over courthouses, and scrubbing the stars and bars off of state insignias.

Mary McLeod Bethune with some of her students in Daytona Beach, circa 1905.
Credit Florida Memory / https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/149519

A state historical commission was in charge of narrowing down a field of eligible Floridians. Contenders included Walt Disney; George Washington Jenkins, Jr., the founder of Publix Supermarkets; and civil rights leader Harry T. Moore, who was killed by a bomb placed under his home in Mims, Florida.

Bethune topped the commission's public poll of the potential replacements. But there’s a dueling bill nominating Marjory Stoneman Douglas, an environmentalist credited with saving the Everglades. Opponents to both bills don’t want the civil war officer removed at all.

The Bethune proposal has one more committee stop in the Senate, while the Douglas bill has not yet had a hearing in either chamber.