Mary McLeod Bethune Statue in the U.S. Capitol is an Important Commemoration of Black Women’s Political Activism in the Federal Government

On October 12, 2021, a six-foot statue of educator and activist, Mary McLeod Bethune was unveiled in Daytona Beach, Florida. In early 2022, the statue will be moved to the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall, a site comprised of statues donated by individual states to honor those notable to that state’s history. Bethune will become the first African American to have a state-commissioned statue in the hall and she will replace a confederate general who once represented the state of Florida.[1] The move to include Bethune represents a positive push toward recognizing the impact of historical figures of marginalized groups in United States History as well as the push to remove confederate monuments. At the same time, Bethune’s commemoration in Statuary Hall spotlights her multifaceted legacy and impact as an educator, activist, and political actor, a legacy hold valuable lessons for political leaders today. 

Although Bethune is most known for having founded what is now Bethune-Cookman University, in the 1930s Bethune arguably became the most powerful Black leader in the United States. By 1936, Bethune was the highest-ranking Black woman in the Roosevelt Administration as director of the Negro Division for the National Youth Administration (NYA). Alongside her professional work, Bethune played a vital role in the Black clubwomen’s movement, having served as president of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, one of the prominent Black women’s organizations from 1896 through the 1920s. In 1935, Bethune developed a new organization, the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW). Propelled by the onset of the Great Depression and her work with the New Deal administrative state, Bethune sought to create an organization that could sustain the tradition of Black women’s self-help while also taking advantage of the expanded federal social safety network. As historians have asserted, Bethune saw the NCNW as a national political interest group for Black women and Black people as a whole and she encouraged staying well-informed on pending legislation, particularly around civil rights issues, and organizing along professional lines in order to put pressure on the powerful.[2] Bethune embodied these reform-centered politics through her federal appointments and relationships. 

Ever the consummate stateswoman, Bethune consistently worked to mobilize networks and relationships with powerful allies, in order to find support for her political agenda; most notably, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. As NYA director, Bethune persistently lobbied to not only secure funds for the NYA Special Negro Fund, which provided aid to work-study programs for Black college students, but also the employment of Black people into federal agencies.[3]

Bethune also surrounded herself with a cohort of politically astute Black women, many of whom were college-educated, professionally employed, and affiliated with multiple social, civic, professional, and political organizations. A range of women, from Daisy Lampkin to Dorothy Ferebee, to Dorothy Height, worked directly with Bethune, through the NCNW, and its affiliate organizations. Together these women honed and disseminated—via editorials in sorority magazines, conferences on Black women and the federal government—political goals which centered economic justice, gainful employment, healthcare access, and increased political representation. This extensive cohort worked diligently through the 1930s and well into the 20th century to make inroads in a long Black freedom struggle, via an expanded and expanding federal government. 

As Bethune gains a well-deserved place in the Statuary Hall, we should use this moment to consider both her significant achievements and its impact on the nation’s history. Simultaneously, when we consider Bethune’s far-reaching legacy, we should also think about her as historian Bettye Collier-Thomas has called her, a “shrewd politician and power broker” to gain insight into her political activism, agenda, and ideology and that of a generation of Black women.[4]

Bethune’s legacy can serve as a historical roadmap for how Black women politicos successfully advanced their agendas within a profoundly divided society and fraught political moment. As we consider the work of women like Stacey Abrams and LaTosha Brown in Georgia, for example, alongside that of Bethune, we can see a long history of Black women working to both shape our democracy and defend it.

Brooke A. Thomas is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at Rutgers University–New Brunswick. Her dissertation “To Capture a Vision Fair: Black Clubwomen and the Shift from Respectability Politics to Public Policy, 1930–1970,” explores how middle class and elite black women used Black Greek Letter Organizations to organize and lobby local, state, and federal officials on behalf of Black people writ large, and Black women specifically. 


[1] https://www.npr.org/2021/10/14/1045964525/mary-mcleod-bethune-statue-us-capitol-florida-unveiling

[2] Deborah Gray White, Too Heavy a Load: Black Women in Defense of Themselves, 1894-1994. (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company), 1999, 146.

[3] Smith, Elaine M. Mary McLeod Bethune and the National Council of Negro Women: Pursuing a True and Unfettered Democracy. Washington, D.C: Alabama State University, for the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House, National Historic Site, National Park Service, 2003, 75-82.

[4] Rebecca Tuuri, Strategic Sisterhood: The National Council of Negro Women in the Black Freedom Struggle. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2018, 15. 

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