Guest Blogger: Amanda
I have walked past this particular memorial several times through my dad’s Capitol Hill neighborhood as we cut through the park to walk down to Eastern Market many weekend mornings. It was not until I decided I wanted to research the Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial that I understood why she was honored in bronze sculpture form.
Mary McLeod Bethune is depicted with two children, which is significant in that she began her career as a teacher and built a school for African Americans that still stands today as Bethune-Cookman College in Florida. The school started as the Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls in 1904 with only 5 students and grew from there. She worked closely with youth throughout her lifetime and fought for both women and African American rights. Not only did she found the National Council of Negro Women in 1935, but she was the first African American woman to be involved in the White House and worked closely with FDR as the “race leader at large” in a more informal position as the Director of the Office of Negro Affairs. This position benefitted her immensely as she developed a close friendship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt who enthusiastically supported her with the National Youth Administration work. The two remained friends throughout their lives, and this connection with the President and First Lady certainly gave Ms. Bethune opportunities she would not have had otherwise to make a difference in the civil rights movement.
The sculpture is a three person tableau, and she is handing a copy of her legacy to the two children standing there with her. The cane that she has in hand is supposed to be from FDR himself; however, she did not use this for support but rather for what she liked to call “swank.” This is the first monument to honor an African American woman in a public park in D.C. The piece was erected on July 10th, 1974, which would have been her 99th birthday. The sculptor, Robert Berks, has 13 works throughout the center of the city going from the Potomac to the Anacostia River. The texture of his work is distinct and follows suit in this memorial. It is rough and has an appeal to the viewer for the touch and feel of the work, similar to Einstein’s pose in DC, also sculpted by Berks. Robert Berks certainly has a reputation for depicting pivotal figures in United States history, and Mary McLeod Bethune’s existence was certainly worth commemorating. She was crucial to the Civil Rights Movement and to improving African American women’s rights, and her belief and determination to the causes she believed in stemmed from a lifetime of personal prayer and faith.
“Faith is the first factor in a life devoted to service. Without it, nothing is possible. With it, nothing is impossible.” –Mary McLeod Bethune