Three-days of gala events celebrated the unveiling of a memorial in Washington, D.C in 1974: "20,000 Pay Tribute," read one newspaper headline. Another announced "100, 000 Attend Bethune Memorial Dedication." Bethune, of course, is Mary McLeod Bethune, the preeminent educator, suffragist and civil rights activist, humanitarian, and adviser to four U.S. presidents. It is one of the first historic women's landmarks that I visited when I start my search in the 1990s for memorializations of women.
In 1935, Mary McLeod Bethune, whose parents had been enslaved, founded the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW). In 1961, Dorothy Height, president of NCNW, persuaded Congress to authorize the erection of a memorial to Bethune who had died in 1955. It would be the first statue of an African American and of a woman in the nation's capital. Dorothy Height then spearheaded a 13-year long fundraising campaign.
Here is a fact about this memorial located in Lincoln Park that I particularly delight in: The already existing large Emancipation Memorial with statues of President Lincoln holding the Emancipation Proclamation and an emancipated slave kneeling beside him that faced west toward the Capitol was rotated to face east toward the Bethune Memorial. I don't know who
prompted that undoubtedly arduous and expensive rotation. But I can imagine Dorothy Height and others insisting that Bethune and Lincoln must be face-to-face. Like critics today, she and Bethune would also have had the emancipated slave on his feet!
As you can see in the image, Bethune is represented by sculptor Robert Berks as handing something to two children—A scroll that represents her "Last Will and Testament," the words of which are inscribed along the side of the platform: "I Leave You Love, I Leave You Hope . . .
I Leave You a Thirst for Education . . . I Leave You A Respect for the Use of Power . . . I Leave You Faith." The cane that she is jauntily holding represents a cane that had once belonged to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a gift from her good friend Eleanor Roosevelt. At the unveiling ceremony, Dorothy Height said that Bethune liked using a cane because it gave her “swagger.”
I wrote about Mary McLeod Bethune and included a photograph of her memorial in my book Adventurous Women: Eight True Stories About Women Who Made A Difference. A photograph of her memorial also hangs on a wall in my house. Recently my son David stopped by in search of the right-size paper bag for 8-year-old Balan's Women's History Month project. Balan had to put three objects related to a historic woman in the bag that he would then take out and describe to his classmates. Turns out he had chosen Mary McLeod Bethune!