Florida just made history as the first state to have a statue of an African American in the U.S. Capitol. The sculpture of Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune will grace National Statuary Hall.
The Florida House this week overwhelmingly approved the measure to replace the statue of Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith with Bethune’s by a 111-1 vote. The Florida Senate, where I sponsored the legislation, had already passed the bill unanimously. The bill now goes to Gov. Rick Scott, who is expected to sign it into law.
There are currently no statues of black Americans in Statuary Hall, and Bethune will only be the 10th statue to depict a woman in a collection that still has more statues commemorating confederate officers than women.
State lawmakers worked to avoid what could have been a debilitating controversy over race.
Instead of warehousing the Smith statue, which has represented Florida for 96 years, lawmakers opted to relocate it to Tallahassee for public display.
Bethune came to Florida as a young teacher and founded a school for black girls in Daytona Beach. The school would become Bethune Cookman University, one of three private historically black colleges and universities in the state that is recognized nationally.
On the national stage, Bethune became the most prominent black woman of her time. In 1935, she founded the National Council of Negro Women, a forum for black women to secure human rights and social justice. She was also appointed to several national commissions by three U.S. presidents and became an adviser of Franklin Roosevelt.
Bethune embodies the best of Florida, and the fact that an overwhelming majority of state lawmakers thought her accomplishments worthy enough to represent our state in National Statuary Hall bodes well for a state that is too often seen as the butt of jokes for its eccentricities.
Perry E. Thurston Jr., state senator, 33rd District,