Florida considers a fitting tribute in Black History Month

Published Feb 17, 2018 at 4:00pm

For those of us who have been fortunate enough to visit our nation’s capital, the National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol is one of those must-see sites.

We read with interest a story in the Herald-Tribune of Sarasota, Fla., about a change that Florida is contemplating. While it isn’t the Sunshine State’s worst problem, the Herald-Tribune supports a move to place a statue of Mary McLeod Bethune in the National Statuary Hall.

Bethune’s story is incredible: She was born on a South Carolina farm in 1875, the 15th child of former slaves. Bethune worked in the fields until she was 10 and enrolled in a one-room school, where she learned to read — an achievement, she later said, that opened the world to her.

As an adult, Bethune attended seminary, then moved to Florida, where in 1904 she founded a five-girl school that grew exponentially until it finally became Bethune-Cookman University, a historically black institution.

Placing Bethune’s statue in the Capitol would right a longstanding wrong, bring welcome attention to Bethune and elevate her status among Floridians, as well as the legions of Americans who visit the hall in Washington, D.C., the Herald-Tribune notes.

Each state has two statues in the hall, located in the U.S. Capitol. The honorees are chosen by each state’s legislature: Many of them are well-known figures — Samuel Adams, Thomas Edison, Helen Keller, Will Rogers, and George Washington. New York’s statues are of Robert Livingston, who served on the committee to write the Declaration of Independence, and sculptor Erastus Dow Palmer.

Some statues may have worthy but somewhat obscure identities. Florida’s representatives in the hall fall into that category, critics say:

John Gorrie moved to Apalachicola after training in New York to be a physician. In the 19th century, he suspended basins filled with ice blocks — transported to Florida from northern lakes — in order to chill the sickrooms of fever-stricken patients. He later earned a patent to create an ice machine; the concept led to air conditioning.

Edmund Kirby Smith was born in St. Augustine in 1824. At 21, he departed to attend the U.S. Military Academy. He fought gallantly for the United States in the Mexican American War but, in 1861, resigned from the Army. He surrendered the last military force of the Confederacy.

Three years ago, as Americans reassessed tributes to Confederates, a movement began to replace Smith’s statue. The Florida Department of State solicited nominees from the public, and Bethune by far received the most mentions. She then received support from a special selection committee.

Only four statues in the Capitol hall have been replaced.

Bethune was a national leader in the civil rights movement and an adviser to U.S. presidents and the military. Known as the First Lady of Struggle, until her death in 1955 Bethune was one of the most influential African-Americans of the 20th century. Her statue in Black History Month would be a fitting tribute.