As ordered by Gov. Rick Scott, a statue of Mary McLeod Bethune, who founded a school that would eventually become historically black Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, will now represent Florida at the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. That’s welcome news.
Bethune’s statue will be the first African-American woman in Statuary Hall. In the year of the woman, that’s a good move. Better yet, Bethune’s arrival means the removal of the statue of St. Augustine native Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith. Another sign of the times.
The campaign in Tallahassee to replace Kirby Smith began with last year’s white nationalist demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia, which placed under a harsh spotlight all Confederate memorials in southern U.S. states and re-opened the old, divisive wounds of race, racism and even slavery.
Until then, the National Statutory Hall Collection in the U.S. Capitol remained largely a secret home to memorials to the old Confederate States of America. That’s slowly changing. Each state is allowed to send two statues to the Capitol. Twelve of the 100 statues commemorating prominent individuals from the 50 states honor people who either fought or defended the Confederacy. Of course, there are no blacks or Hispanics representing any state in the Hall.
Bethune’s arrival changes that unacceptable line-up. As one of two Florida representatives, there’s no doubt Bethune’s influence in the lives of Florida’s black residents — first, as an educator, then as a civil-rights and human-rights activist and finally as an influential adviser to both President Franklin D. and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
The story goes that as a child, Mary McLeod wanted to be a missionary, but turned her attention to the classroom when the Presbyterian Church rejected her application to serve in Africa. Her dream of opening her own school brought the young teacher and her husband, Albertus Bethune, to Daytona Beach, where she established a school for black girls. The school would become Bethune-Cookman University, one of three private historically black colleges in Florida.
She was an activist in the 1930s, when that was unheard of for a black woman. She founded the National Council of Negro Women, a forum seeking human rights and social justice for black women, and was also appointed to several national commissions during the presidency of Herbert Hoover, Calvin Coolidge and Franklin Roosevelt; she became a friend and adviser to Eleanor Roosevelt.
Choosing her statue for the Hall is a bold statement that recognizes Florida’s rich history and the role blacks have played in it. Ironically, black women in America are still lagging behind when it comes to social and economic status.
Last year, The Status of Black Women in the United States, analyzed the broader experience of black women in categories like political participation, employment and earnings and well-being.
It found that although black women vote at high rates — they were credited as a bloc with helping defeat U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama — and they have made significant improvement in earning college degrees and are succeeding in opening their own businesses, they continue to be underrepresented in elected office, earn less than white men and women and are twice as likely as white women to be incarcerated, the report says.
How about the state of Florida, in honor of Bethune, start working on changing those numbers?