"I love this lady," enthused Nilda Comas, a master sculptor with studios in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and Pietrasanta, Italy—this "lady" being Mary McLeod Bethune, the preeminent Black educator, activist, and humanitarian.
Comas, who was born in Puerto Rico in 1953, won the competition that garnered 1,600 applications to create a statue of Mary McLeod Bethune that would replace a statue of a Confederate general placed by Florida in 1922 in the United States Capitol's Statuary Hall. (Each state is authorized to place two statues. In 2000, Congress passed legislation allowing a state to replace its existing statues.)
Of the 10 finalists, Nilda Comas was the only woman and the only sculptor who carved marble. She immersed herself in learning about Bethune who died in 1955.
At the Library of Congress, Comas viewed 280 photographs of Mary McLeod Bethune, read her writing and listened to her speeches and to her singing. "She captured my heart and inspired me," Comas said.
Mary McLeod Bethune, the fifteenth of seventeen children, and the first born free to her parents who had been enslaved, is one of the women I profiled in my book Adventurous Women: Eight True Stories About Women Who Made A Difference. I wrote about how she started a school in Daytona Beach, Florida, with a dollar and a half, a school that eventually became Bethune-Cookman University. I wrote about how she stood down the Ku Klux Klan, eighty men hiding under white hoods and robes carrying lighted torches and a large cross that they stuck in the ground of her school and set on fire. How she founded a hospital when her students were denied proper care at the public hospital. I wrote about how she was an adviser to four U.S. Presidents. How she was a fierce advocate for women and for civil rights. "Prejudice of all kinds must be forgotten and we must concern ourselves with universal peace, universal education and universal religion," she once said.
Mary McLeod Bethune received many awards and honors, including the Medal of Honor and Merit from the government of Haiti, and honorary degrees from colleges and universities. Nilda Comas's marble statue, the first of a Black woman and the first by a Hispanic-American sculptor, in Statuary Hall, is eight feet tall on a three-foot base. Comas represented Bethune, garbed in academic regalia, with her head positioned in a slightly downward gaze, as if looking at visitors, and a smiling face. The story behind the black rose in her left hand is that Mary McLeod Bethune was entranced when she saw black velvet roses in a garden in Switzerland in 1920. For her, the black rose represented diversity and individuality. She took to calling her students "Black Roses." The walking stick in her right hand represents one of President Franklin Roosevelt's walking sticks that her close friend Eleanor Roosevelt gave her after his death.
Mary McLeod Bethune's statue, titled, "The Black Rose," is due to be installed in Statuary Hall in April. “We are very proud to know that her time has come and that she is able to be now looked upon,” remarked her great grandson Charles Maurice Bethune. A smaller bronze replica will be installed in Daytona Beach, Florida. Over the years, I have visited various landmarks to Mary McLeod Bethune, including her grave on the campus of Bethune-Cookman University, just before the Pandemic shut-down in 2020. These two statues. are on my "To Visit" list!
Mary McLeod Bethune lived a life of purpose consistent with her vision: "There can be no discrimination, no segregation, no separation of some citizens from the rights which belong to all . . .We must gain . . .full equality in the abundance of life."
The image of "The Black Rose" and Nilda Comas:: Gave, Marc, "Eye on Art: Sculptor Vilda Comas goes to Washington," New Pelican, 2/1/2022.