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She was an influential civil rights pioneer. Now her statue will replace a Confederate general’s in the US Capitol.

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She was an influential civil rights pioneer. Now her statue will replace a Confederate general’s in the US Capitol.

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — When a small group of local residents traveled to a tiny hamlet on the Tuscan coast of Italy in July to see the new marble sculpture of Mary McLeod Bethune, Hiram Powell expected to be dazzled by the artfully chiseled statue.

What he didn’t expect was the soul-shaking moment when the cloth draped over the gleaming white work of art was pulled away. Suddenly he found himself sinking toward the ground and genuflecting on one knee.

“Her eyes met mine, and something just came over me,” said Powell, the interim president of Bethune-Cookman University. “I can’t describe it. She is such a figure and influence on my life. It was meeting the eyes of the maker of all that.”

In a few days, anyone who can get to the News-Journal Center on Daytona Beach’s riverfront will have a chance to see the towering 11-foot-tall statue of the woman who was a civil rights pioneer and founder of the school that grew into Bethune-Cookman University.

Thanks to the tenacity of local leaders, the Bethune sculpture will have a three-month layover in Daytona Beach before traveling to its final destination.

The statue, made from marble culled from the same quarry used for Michelangelo’s David, is destined to stand inside the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. It will be one of the two statues representing Florida in the Capitol, and it will replace a nearly 100-year-old bronze sculpture of Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith.

The Smith statue was removed on Sept. 4 and will be placed in temporary storage at the Museum of Florida History in Tallahassee. 

Early next year, the Bethune statue will be placed in the Capitol Building’s National Statuary Hall, a chamber just off the rotunda. The hall was the original meeting place of the U.S. House of Representatives, and since 1864 it’s been devoted to sculptures of prominent Americans.

The Bethune statue will be the first representing a Black person, male or female, in the state collection inside Statuary Hall. There are four other Black people represented in other parts of the Capitol: Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth and Rosa Parks. 

The statue will remain on display in Daytona Beach through Dec. 12, and then it will be packed up and readied for its journey to Washington, D.C., where it could remain for 100 years or more.

The marble statue is hoped to take its place in Statuary Hall in February. Shortly after that, an identical bronze statue of Mary McLeod Bethune made by the same artist, Nilda Comas, will be installed in Riverfront Park where it meets the eastern tip of Mary McLeod Bethune Boulevard. 

‘That will be my shrine’

The bronze statue will remain in the park permanently, and a plaza will be created around it to honor the woman it portrays. Charles Bethune, the great-grandson of Mary McLeod Bethune, expects to find himself on the riverfront in front of that bronze statue  often.

“That will be my shrine, my place of solace, a place to just get a vibe of her presence,” said Charles Bethune, who grew up in a house on the Bethune-Cookman University campus that’s now the registrar’s office.

Now 62, Charles Bethune was born four years after Mary McLeod Bethune died in 1955, so he only knows her through family stories, books and photographs.

His older siblings had some years with their great-grandmother before she passed away, but they’re part of a shrinking generation with direct memories of Mary McLeod Bethune. The bronze and marble statues are hoped to carry on her story and teach people about the impact she had on both Daytona Beach and the nation.

“It lightens my heart to know she’ll be immortalized in this state and will be in the Capitol for generations to come,” said Charles Bethune, a longtime teacher and coach who works for the city now as a recreational specialist. 

Other local residents also see the statues as important opportunities to learn about Mary McLeod Bethune’s accomplishments, and to honor her.

“It’s hard to really state the magnitude of it and explain how grand it is,” said Mayor Derrick Henry. “It’s a seminal moment in our city. We should be proud to highlight ourselves as the place where Mary McLeod Bethune sowed her seeds, wrote her last will and testament, and chose as the base for her work.”

Having the Washington, D.C.,-bound marble statue in particular in Daytona Beach “is recognition Daytona Beach was fertile ground for her work at a time when many places were not so fertile,” Henry said.

It’s recognition of Daytona Beach “as a place of tolerance and inclusion,” he said.

Mary McLeod Bethune’s backstory

Bethune came into the world in a small log cabin on a South Carolina rice and cotton farm in July 1875. Her parents were former slaves, and she was their 15th child. 

She was toiling in the cotton fields by the time she was five years old, but she was able to go to the one-room school a few miles away. She became the first person in her family to learn to read and write.

It was a small opportunity, but she parlayed her rural South education into a prolific career and life. 

When she started a school for girls in Daytona Beach in 1904, she rented a small house for $11 per month. She made benches and desks from discarded crates, pencils from burned wood and ink from elderberry juice.

The Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls site bordered Daytona Beach’s trash dump, so Bethune raised money selling sweet potato pies, ice cream and fried fish to crews at the dump.

That school eventually grew into Bethune-Cookman University, which has helped generations of Black students pursue an education beyond high school.

More opportunities opened up for Bethune as she became an advisor to four U.S. presidents, including Franklin D. Roosevelt.

She became the only Black woman to help the U.S. delegation that created the United Nations charter. She also created the National Council of Negro Women, directed the Office of Minority Affairs in the National Youth Administration, and became a general in the Women’s Army for the National Defense.

Her disadvantaged start in life only seemed to make her more determined and toughen her for the challenges she ran up against throughout her 79 years. When the Ku Klux Klan marched to her school in Daytona Beach and threatened to burn it down, she retorted that she would just build another one. 

‘Not a woman to be taken lightly’

“Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune is probably one of the most important civil rights leaders,” said Patrick Coggins, a multicultural education professor at Stetson University.

She also connected herself to the national movement of women pushing for the right to vote, Coggins said.

“People locally liked her because she had a very calm demeanor,” he said. “She was not corrosive.”

But she also knew how to be forceful when necessary. U.S. presidents dating back to Calvin Coolidge in 1923 appointed her to commissions and leadership positions.

“This was not a woman to be taken lightly,” Coggins said. “She was brilliant, organized and able to raise money. She was good at building contacts and coalitions with whites. She found whites who believed in her and her strategy.” 

Coggins said she galvanized the religious community to see Jim Crow laws weren’t going to be a good idea in the long run.

“I think we’re looking at a saint and a special person,” he said.

Bethune was constantly juggling projects many people might not have been aware of.

She worked with Eleanor Roosevelt to integrate the military during World War II and help the Tuskegee Airmen become the first Black military aviators in the United States’ armed forces.

She and Eleanor Roosevelt also worked together on international human rights endeavors.

“She really laid the blueprint for nonviolence and how you advocate for civil rights, human rights and women’s rights,” Coggins said.

She managed to avoid being lynched or attacked in other ways probably because the KKK and other racists “misread her depths and potential,” he said.

It was a community effort that ultimately made the statue project possible. A diverse group of local residents joined forces three years ago and have persevered through protracted government approval processes and raising $740,000 so far to make it all possible.

Another $50,000 has been pledged, so the group is inching closer to its fundraising goal of $850,000. The money is covering everything from creation of the bronze and marble sculptures to development of a documentary film on the statue.

People of various backgrounds pooled their knowledge and resources. Powerful attorneys, business leaders, local politicians and B-CU officials all helped and have persevered through challenges and delays.

“We are Black, white, Hispanic, multi-generational, male, female, Republican and Democrat,” said Nancy Lohman, chairperson of the Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune Statuary Fund committee.

‘Trying to understand the magic’

Lohman said the project has been shaped by the “beautiful spirit” of Comas, the master sculptor who created the new marble and bronze Bethune statues. Lohman said the symbolism Comas melded into the marble work of art “is as brilliant as the magnificence of the sculpting itself.”

The black marble rose the sculpted Bethune holds symbolizes the hope she had of everyone being accepted, regardless of their skin color. 

In 1927 Bethune visited a garden in Europe filled with roses displaying a rainbow of colors. She saw it as an interracial garden and had a vision of how all people could peacefully thrive together, side by side.  

It was the first time she had seen a black velvet rose, and for her it became a symbol of diversity and acceptance of individuality.

Powell, who began as a B-CU student in 1973 and has worked there since 1980, hopes people take the time to learn what different parts of the statue represent. He also hopes they learn about Bethune’s accomplishments.

Powell believes Bethune was “a precursor” to Martin Luther King, Jr. He said Bethune penned a speech about what democracy meant to her. It was very similar to King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, which he delivered in 1963, eight years after Bethune’s death.

Powell still marvels how a Black woman of her era achieved so much.

“What caused people to listen to her? How did she get inside?” he asked. “All these years later, I’m still baffled. I’m still trying to understand the magic.”

Comas had the weighty task of capturing the essence of Bethune.

The sculptor began with an 11.5-ton block of precious statuario marble excavated from Michelangelo’s cave in the Apuan Italian Alps in Tuscany. The black marble used for the rose came from Spain.

After all of the government approvals and funding were in place, Comas was able to get to work on the marble statue a year ago. She had already made smaller models and studied Mary McLeod Bethune’s life, so when she got back to her art studio in Italy last fall she was ready to dive into the sculpting.

Comas, who splits her time between homes in Italy and Fort Lauderdale, finished the 3-ton statue in June. 

She said the high quality of the marble helped her get the level of detail she wanted. Its purity provided a compact piece of marble with soft white hues.

She said she tried to capture strength, kindness, attentiveness and humility in the sculpture’s expression and its stance slightly bending forward. She chose to dress her in a graduation gown because Bethune wore an expensive Ivy League gown for both graduations and lectures.

Before Comas took a chisel to the marble, she visited the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. to learn about Bethune. She pored over paperwork and documents spread across a long table and looked at 284 photos.

She was even able to hear Bethune’s voice on audio recordings. She also visited the new African American Museum in Washington, D.C., which has a room devoted to Bethune. She also spent time at the National Council of Negro Women, where an employee gave her one of the cookie tins Bethune sold to raise money.

It all helped Comas understand what Bethune accomplished and what kind of person she was. Comas feels good about what she created.

Comas said Lohman and other key players in the project were relentless in making everything work out and creating a first-class venture. She hopes the statue will inspire people to learn more about Bethune.

Coggins, the Stetson professor, has even loftier hopes.

“It’s an opportunity to heal our nation and bring people back together,” he said. “She had a strategy that said I don’t care if you’re Jewish or Catholic, Black or white: How can we get together and make the world a better place?”

Follow Eileen Zaffiro-Kean on Twitter: @EileenDBNJ

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She was an influential civil rights pioneer. Now her statue will replace a Confederate general’s in the US Capitol.