When the Great Floridians Ad Hoc Committee of the Florida Division of Historical Resources met in June of 2016 to select candidates to represent Florida in the National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol the list of names under consideration was long. But one stood out.
“I am representing more than 14,000 graduates of Bethune-Cookman University,” said Daisy Grimes, then a B-CU employee and one of three people to speak in support of Mary McLeod Bethune at the meeting. “I am so pleased that Mary McLeod Bethune is on this list.”
The list Grimes referred to was a long one, with 259 unique names submitted through a public comment period to replace the statue of Confederate Gen. Edmund Kirby Smith in Washington D.C. A total of 130 names met the eligibility requirements for consideration, including Dr. Bethune, who was nominated by 1,237 of the nearly 3,200 people responding to the public comment request.
Dr. Timothy Parsons, director of the Division of Historical Resources of the Florida Department of State, moderated the meeting and outlined the process to place a new statue in the U.S. Capitol to represent Florida.
“This is the first part of the process,” he said at the 2016 meeting, referring to the selection of three names to be submitted to the Florida Legislature for consideration. The second part of the process would be choosing a sculptor to create the piece.
Parsons said while the selection of the person to be honored did not require public comment, state officials decided to take the step.
“We wanted to make a good faith effort to allow the committee to consider the views of the public in making their decision,” he said.
Parsons said the public comment phase offered residents five opportunities to submit input, including an online survey and through emails or letters. Respondents were asked to identify their nominee and include the person’s area of influence, how that person made a significant contribution to the state, whether they were making the nomination as an individual or member of an organization, and their county of residence. However, other than submitting a name, the additional questions were optional. The state received a total of 3,587 submissions from the public.
For Grimes, the influence of Mary McLeod Bethune and her legacy were clear.
“She represents the epitome of what we are as Floridians,” she said.
Reading from Bethune’s “Last Will and Testament,” written a few years before her death in 1955, Grimes highlighted the educator and civil rights leader’s lasting contributions to the state of Florida and the nation.
One section illustrates Bethune’s ability to combine her idealism for building a better world with the realities of American society in the mid-20th century.
“I leave you a respect for the use of power. We live in a world that respects power above all things. Power intelligently directed can lead to more freedom. Unwisely directed it can be a dreadful, destructive force,” Bethune wrote.
Grimes said Bethune’s words still resonate with students, faculty and alumni at the university she founded and remain an important message for society today.
“We consider it a document to live by today,” she said. “What a better place it is because she lived.”
Ashley Robertson, former curator of the Mary McLeod Bethune home in Daytona Beach and currently a member of the faculty in African-American Studies at the University of Florida, also spoke at the Ad Hoc committee meeting in support of Dr. Bethune’s nomination.
“Her school became a beacon of hope,” Robertson said. “She utilized her school as a space against the vicious policies of segregation by hosting Sunday community meetings in which whites and Blacks came together to enjoy the arts. In that instance, she effectively brought integration to this state well before the civil rights movement.”
Robertson said Bethune’s legacy continues to attract attention and visitors to Florida.
“Today thousands of visitors come to Daytona to visit her home and walk in the steps of a legendary woman,” Robertson said. “This is an opportunity for Florida to recognize a woman who is often not given her proper place in history.”
Robertson said inclusion of the statue of Mary McLeod Bethune is important beyond recognizing and commemorating her legacy, saying many of the statues currently on display in the National Statuary Hall “do not reflect the diversity of our nation” and the nomination of Bethune “is an opportunity for Florida to make history by becoming the first state to honor an African-American for this collection.”
Bethune’s nomination also received support from the Ad Hoc committee itself during the meeting.
Major Gen. Michael A. Calhoun, at the time Adjutant General of Florida in command of the Florida National Guard and member of the Ad Hoc committee, said Bethune’s life and legacy are as important as ever.
“What she did is relevant to today,” he said. “During that period of time when we still had segregation, what she brought to education, in the state of Florida and the United States as a whole, still echoes.”
Calhoun said while many are aware of Bethune’s story, it is one that is important to continue telling.
“Even though she has accumulated a number of awards, I am not sure we recognize her enough here in the State of Florida in the manner in which she should be historically noted,” he said.