The violence resulting from the recent white nationalist demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia, has cast a harsh spotlight on Confederate memorials and re-opened the old, divisive wounds of race and racism.
While local communities across the country continue to brace for demonstrations over the removal of the controversial monuments, the National Statutory Hall Collection in the U.S. Capitol remains home to a largely overlooked memorial to the old Confederate States of America.
Twelve of the 100 statues commemorating prominent individuals from the 50 states memorialize people who either fought for the Confederacy or were active in Confederate politics.
There are no blacks representing any state in the Hall.
Currently, Florida is represented there by two men: John Corrie, a Florida physician who is considered the father of refrigeration and air conditioning, and Edmund Kirby Smith, a St. Augustine native who became a general in the Confederate Army.
Fortunately, Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature already have agreed to replace the Smith statue. Several names for a new statue were offered, but the choice is easy for me and many others: Mary McLeod Bethune.
During the recent legislative session, I was proud to sponsor the resolution that would bring Bethune’s likeness to the Hall. It passed out of the Florida Senate unanimously only to languish in the Florida House. I have refiled the resolution and expect a better outcome next year.
There’s no doubting Bethune’s achievements, influence, and reach. She was called “The First Lady of the Struggle,” as she devoted her life to improving the fortunes of black people — first, as an educator, then as a civil-rights and human-rights activist, and finally as an influential adviser to both Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt.
As a child, Mary McLeod wanted to be a missionary, but turned her attention toward education 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 and universities in Florida.
In 1935, she founded the National Council of Negro Women, a forum seeking human rights and social justice for black women. Bethune was also appointed to several national commissions during the presidential administrations of Hoover, Coolidge, and Franklin Roosevelt.
In 2016, Scott signed legislation that set up a panel within the Florida Department of State to come up with a worthy Florida resident to replace Smith. Bethune received the panel’s top ranking.
Bethune’s life and values illustrate the best of Florida. Choosing her likeness for the Hall would send a powerful signal to the world that Floridians recognize our state’s rich history and its present-day diversity. Florida has a golden opportunity to make a bold statement. Bethune belongs in Statutory Hall. She’s the obvious choice.
Perry E. Thurston Jr., a Democrat, represents the 33rd District in the Florida Senate. He is also chair of the Florida Conference of Black State Legislators.