On Friday, two members of the Florida delegation–U.S. Reps. Val Demings, D-Fla., and Michael Waltz, R-Fla.–introduced a resolution to welcome the statue of Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune to the U.S. Capitol. The statue will be the first statue of a Black American to represent a state in Statuary Hall.
The U.S. Capitol hosts two satues donated by each state. Last year, Florida requested a change to its representation, replacinga statue of Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith with one of Dr. McLeod Bethune. The other statue is of 19th century Floridian John Gorrie, an inventor and physician who has been hailed as the father of air conditioning.
“When Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune was a child, she picked up a book. The other children, seeing that she was Black, told her ‘put that down, you can’t read.’ That moment started a lifelong commitment to education and civil rights and launched an unparalleled legacy that lives on today. In her last will and testament, she wrote that she leaves us with hope, love, faith, responsibility to our young people and thirst for education. Education: the key to success in America. Therefore, it is more than fitting that she should be here in the ‘People’s House,’” Demings said on Friday.
“Mary McLeod Bethune was the most powerful woman I can remember as a child. She has been an inspiration to me throughout my whole life. I am proud that she will be Florida’s new face in the U.S. Capitol, and know that her life will continue to inspire all Americans for years to come,” she added.
“Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune is one of our district’s and Florida’s most influential leaders,” Waltz said. “Bethune knew education is the key to equality and to a better life. Bethune was a servant leader who worked hard every day to provide opportunities to those in our community and our country who didn’t have a voice. Her example and legacy should make all Floridians proud. Florida’s Sixth District is honored to have one of its most notable figures celebrated in the U.S. Capitol – and I’m looking forward to thousands of visitors in Washington learning more about Dr. Bethune and her servant leadership to America.”
If passed, there would be a welcoming ceremony for the statue Capitol Rotunda where it would be displayed for six months before being moved to the National Statuary Hall Collection. The statue is expected to be unveiled next year.
Demings’ office offered the following biography of Dr. Bethune:
Mary McLeod was the 15th child to slaves on a farm near Mayesville, South Carolina. Over the course of her extraordinary life, she would become one of America’s leading advocates for education, civil, and voting rights, the founder of one of America’s premier schools—Bethune-Cookman College—and an advisor to five U.S. presidents.
That story starts in a small missionary school, five miles from the farm where her family worked. She was the only member of her family to go to school. She walked each way, doing her schoolwork by candlelight. When no missionary opportunities were available, she turned to education, teaching for almost a decade and marrying fellow teacher Albertus Bethune. Then, in a decision that would change history, she purchased a small cottage in Florida, moving there with a dollar and fifty cents in her pocket, and teaching a first class of five students in a bare-bones room.
Her school, the Bethune Institute for Girls, would later merge with the Cookman Institute for Boys to form Bethune-Cookman.
From these humble beginnings, her impact swiftly grew. She expanded her school, founded the first Black hospital in Daytona, fought for civil rights, opened the first public library for Black Floridians, and faced down a KKK mob.
Word of her bravery and abilities spread. She served in leadership roles in Florida’s premier civil rights organizations, where she fought for educational opportunity, voting rights, child welfare, workers’ rights, and an end to lynchings.
She became an advisor to five U.S. presidents, including roles in housing and child health for Presidents Coolidge and Hoover. She became one of President Roosevelt’s closest advisors, and one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s closest friends. In 1936, he appointed her as director of the Division of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration, where she worked to employ over 300,000 young people.
The remainder of her life was devoted to education and the fight for liberty. She worked with the National Council of Negro Women and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She went to the U.N. and accepted an appointment from President Truman. She continued to fight for her school.
Before she died, she wrote this:
Sometimes as I sit communing in my study I feel that death is not far off. I am aware that it will overtake me before the greatest of my dreams – full equality for the Negro in our time – is realized. Yet, I face that reality without fear or regrets. I am resigned to death as all humans must be at the proper time. Death neither alarms nor frightens one who has had a long career of fruitful toil. The knowledge that my work has been helpful to many fills me with joy and great satisfaction.
Since my retirement from an active role in educational work and from the affairs of the National Council of Negro Women, I have been living quietly and working at my desk at my home here in Florida. The years have directed a change of pace for me. I am now 78 years old and my activities are no longer so strenuous as they once were. I feel that I must conserve my strength to finish the work at hand.
Already I have begun working on my autobiography which will record my life-journey in detail, together with the innumerable side trips which have carried me abroad, into every corner of our country, into homes both lowly and luxurious, and even into the White House to confer with Presidents. I have also deeded my home and its contents to the Mary McLeod Bethune Foundation, organized in March, 1953, for research, interracial activity and the sponsorship of wider educational opportunities.
Sometimes I ask myself if I have any other legacy to leave. Truly, my worldly possessions are few. Yet, my experiences have been rich. From them, I have distilled principles and policies in which I believe firmly, for they represent the meaning of my life’s work. They are the products of much sweat and sorrow.
Perhaps in them there is something of value. So, as my life draws to a close, I will pass them on to Negroes everywhere in the hope that an old woman’s philosophy may give them inspiration. Here, then is my legacy.
I LEAVE YOU LOVE. Love builds. It is positive and helpful. It is more beneficial than hate. Injuries quickly forgotten quickly pass away. Personally and racially, our enemies must be forgiven. Our aim must be to create a world of fellowship and justice where no man’s skin, color or religion, is held against him. “Love thy neighbor” is a precept which could transform the world if it were universally practiced. It connotes brotherhood and, to me, brotherhood of man is the noblest concept in all human relations. Loving your neighbor means being interracial, interreligious and international.
I LEAVE YOU HOPE. The Negro’s growth will be great in the years to come. Yesterday, our ancestors endured the degradation of slavery, yet they retained their dignity. Today, we direct our economic and political strength toward winning a more abundant and secure life. Tomorrow, a new Negro, unhindered by race taboos and shackles, will benefit from more than 330 years of ceaseless striving and struggle. Theirs will be a better world. This I believe with all my heart.
I LEAVE YOU THE CHALLENGE OF DEVELOPING CONFIDENCE IN ONE ANOTHER. As long as Negroes are hemmed into racial blocks by prejudice and pressure, it will be necessary for them to band together for economic betterment. Negro banks, insurance companies and other businesses are examples of successful, racial economic enterprises. These institutions were made possible by vision and mutual aid. Confidence was vital in getting them started and keeping them going. Negroes have got to demonstrate still more confidence in each other in business. This kind of confidence will aid the economic rise of the race by bringing together the pennies and dollars of our people and ploughing them into useful channels. Economic separatism cannot be tolerated in this enlightened age, and it is not practicable. We must spread out as far and as fast as we can, but we must also help each other as we go.
I LEAVE YOU A THIRST FOR EDUCATION. Knowledge is the prime need of the hour. More and more, Negroes are taking full advantage of hard-won opportunities for learning, and the educational level of the Negro population is at its highest point in history. We are making greater use of the privileges inherent in living in a democracy. If we continue in this trend, we will be able to rear increasing numbers of strong, purposeful men and women, equipped with vision, mental clarity, health and education.
I LEAVE YOU RESPECT FOR THE USES OF POWER. We live in a world which respects power above all things. Power, intelligently directed, can lead to more freedom. Unwisely directed, it can be a dreadful, destructive force. During my lifetime I have seen the power of the Negro grow enormously. It has always been my first concern that this power should be placed on the side of human justice.
Now that the barriers are crumbling everywhere, the Negro in America must be ever vigilant lest his forces be marshalled behind wrong causes and undemocratic movements. He must not lend his support to any group that seeks to subvert democracy. That is why we must select leaders who are wise, courageous, and of great moral stature and ability. We have great leaders among us today: Ralph Bunche, Channing Tobias, Mordecai Johnson, Walter White, and Mary Church Terrell. [The latter now deceased]. We have had other great men and women in the past: Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth. We must produce more qualified people like them, who will work not for themselves, but for others.
I LEAVE YOU FAITH. Faith is the first factor in a life devoted to service. Without faith, nothing is possible. With it, nothing is impossible. Faith in God is the greatest power, but great, too, is faith in oneself. In 50 years the faith of the American Negro in himself has grown immensely and is still increasing. The measure of our progress as a race is in precise relation to the depth of the faith in our people held by our leaders. Frederick Douglass, genius though he was, was spurred by a deep conviction that his people would heed his counsel and follow him to freedom. Our greatest Negro figures have been imbued with faith. Our forefathers struggled for liberty in conditions far more onerous than those we now face, but they never lost the faith. Their perseverance paid rich dividends. We must never forget their sufferings and their sacrifices, for they were the foundations of the progress of our people.
I LEAVE YOU RACIAL DIGNITY. I want Negroes to maintain their human dignity at all costs. We, as Negroes, must recognize that we are the custodians as well as the heirs of a great civilization. We have given something to the world as a race and for this we are proud and fully conscious of our place in the total picture of mankind’s development. We must learn also to share and mix with all men. We must make and effort to be less race conscious and more conscious of individual and human values. I have never been sensitive about my complexion. My color has never destroyed my self-respect nor has it ever caused me to conduct myself in such a manner as to merit the disrespect of any person. I have not let my color handicap me. Despite many crushing burdens and handicaps, I have risen from the cotton fields of South Carolina to found a college, administer it during its years of growth, become a public servant in the government of our country and a leader of women. I would not exchange my color for all the wealth in the world, for had I been born white I might not have been able to do all that I have done or yet hope to do.
I LEAVE YOU A DESIRE TO LIVE HARMONIOUSLY WITH YOUR FELLOW MEN. The problem of color is worldwide. It is found in Africa and Asia, Europe and South America. I appeal to American Negroes — North, South, East and West — to recognize their common problems and unite to solve them.
I pray that we will learn to live harmoniously with the white race. So often, our difficulties have made us hypersensitive and truculent. I want to see my people conduct themselves naturally in all relationships — fully conscious of their manly responsibilities and deeply aware of their heritage. I want them to learn to understand whites and influence them for good, for it is advisable and sensible for us to do so. We are a minority of 15 million living side by side with a white majority. We must learn to deal with these people positively and on an individual basis.
I LEAVE YOU FINALLY A RESPONSIBILITY TO OUR YOUNG PEOPLE. The world around us really belongs to youth for youth will take over its future management. Our children must never lose their zeal for building a better world. They must not be discouraged from aspiring toward greatness, for they are to be the leaders of tomorrow. Nor must they forget that the masses of our people are still underprivileged, ill-housed, impoverished and victimized by discrimination. We have a powerful potential in our youth, and we must have the courage to change old ideas and practices so that we may direct their power toward good ends.
Faith, courage, brotherhood, dignity, ambition, responsibility — these are needed today as never before. We must cultivate them and use them as tools for our task of completing the establishment of equality for the Negro. We must sharpen these tools in the struggle that faces us and find new ways of using them. The Freedom Gates are half-ajar. We must pry them fully open.
If I have a legacy to leave my people, it is my philosophy of living and serving. As I face tomorrow, I am content, for I think I have spent my life well. I pray now that my philosophy may be helpful to those who share my vision of a world of Peace, Progress, Brotherhood, and Love.