A Monument to a Monument: The Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial

Mary McLeod Bethune smiles as she poses for a portrait
Mary McLeod Bethune smiles as she poses for a portrait, March 14, 1955


The Clarion Voice is Stilled

When 79 year old Mary McLeod Bethune passed away on May 18, 1955 at her home, "The Retreat" on her beloved campus Bethune-Cookman College (now University), the world lost an educational pioneer, a visionary leader-activist, and a lover of people. Her death was followed by editorial tributes in African American newspapers across the United States. The Oklahoma City Black Dispatch stated she was, "Exhibit No. 1 for all who have faith in America and the democratic process." The Atlanta Daily World said her life was, "one of the most dramatic careers ever enacted at any time upon the stage of human activity." The Pittsburgh Courier wrote, "In any race or nation she would have been an outstanding personality and made a noteworthy contribution because her chief attribute was her indomitable soul."

The mainstream press praised Mrs. Bethune, too. Columnist Louis E. Martin said, "She gave out faith and hope as if they were pills and she some sort of doctor." Christian Century suggested, "the story of her life should be taught to every school child for generations to come." The New York Times noted she was, "one of the most potent factors in the growth of interracial goodwill in America." The Washington Post said: "So great were her dynamism and force that it was almost impossible to resist her... Not only her own people, but all of America has been enriched and ennobled by her courageous, ebullient spirit." Her hometown newspaper, the Daytona Beach Evening News printed, "To some she seemed unreal, something that could not be.... What right had she to greatness?... The lesson of Mrs. Bethune's life is that genius knows no racial barriers."

As the news of her death spread all over the world, her funeral was held five days later on the campus of her school, and was attended by thousands of people, including dignitaries and heads of state. Luminaries from all over the world sent notes and telegrams expressing their condolences in honor of the woman who had been called "the First Lady of Negro America," "the First Lady of the Struggle," or lovingly and simply, "Ma." She was even listed as one of America's greatest women, coming in at number ten.
Four figures sit at a table with microphones
Mary McLeod Bethune, an unidentified man, Dr. Channing Tobias, and Dorothy I. Height sit for a radio interview, ca. 1940s.


Memorializing Their Founder

In November 1957, Dorothy Irene Height was elected the fourth national president of the National Council of Negro Women, Inc. (NCNW). She had served NCNW in various capacities for the previous twenty years. She had the arduous task of leading NCNW during the early 1960s, a turbulent period of increased racial violence in the South as the Civil Rights Movement expanded. During her over four decades as NCNW president, she met this challenge head on, pushing for equal rights for all Americans regardless of race, class, or gender. One of her top priorities was to create a lasting, living monument to her beloved mentor. She is on record saying the following many, many times prior to her death on April 20, 2010:

"I don't think that outside of my mother and my church, there's been anything, any person of greater influence than Mary McLeod Bethune."

The first mention of NCNW creating a memorial honoring Mrs. Bethune came in 1958. The following year, the organization's plans became public knowledge when the Honorable Frances P. Bolton of Ohio introduced legislation in the First Session of the 86th Congress of the United States of America, House of Representatives on Monday, August 17, 1959. It read partly:

"Mr. Speaker, nearly 100 years have passed since President Abraham Lincoln signed the great Emancipation Proclamation into law. In commemoration of this 'century of freedom,' the National Council of Negro Women has voted unanimously to undertake in 1963 the project of memorializing their founder, the late Mary McLeod Bethune. I have today introduced a House joint resolution authorizing the Secretary of the Interior to grant authority to the National Council of Negro Women to erect in the District of Columbia a memorial honoring Mary McLeod Bethune, the design and location of the memorial to be approved by the Secretary, the Commission of Fine Arts, and the National Capital Planning Commission. Among the Negro people who have truly shared the American dream of freedom none stands higher than the late Mary McLeod Bethune. Rightly called 'the first woman of her race,' her life work stands as a testimonial to selfless dedication in behalf of her people."

Three women view model of Bethune Memorial
NCNW Presidents Vivian Carter Mason, Dorothy Irene Height, and Dr. Dorothy Boulding Ferebee, view the model of the Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial by sculptor Robert Berks, ca. 1960s.


Lincoln Park and Mrs. Bethune?

As the fifteenth of 17 children born to parents who had been enslaved, the first in her family to be born free and to receive an education, Mrs. Bethune’s life’s-journey carried her abroad, into every corner of the United States, into homes both lowly and luxurious, and even into the White House to confer with Presidents. So, when Congresswoman Bolton introduced legislation to Congress about the Bethune Memorial in 1959, she also indicated that the NCNW had already selected the permanent home for this project—Lincoln Park, located at East Capitol and 12th Streets, in Southeast, D.C.—a place where D.C. Emancipation Day ceremonies were held historically, as well as Freedom rallies that would support the Civil Rights Movement over the next decade. Lincoln Park was also the location of the Emancipation Group or Freedman's Memorial that was dedicated in 1876. This memorial by sculptor Thomas Ball, showcased a dramatic statue of President Abraham Lincoln holding a rolled-up copy of the Emancipation Proclamation in his right hand and a kneeling African American man with broken wrist shackles, showcasing African Americans fought for their own freedom during the Civil War. The first $5 dollars toward the memorial was given by Charlotte Scott, a formerly enslaved woman from Virginia. Additional funds were made possible due to a campagin among freedmen and women who raised $18,000 dollars. In their petition to Congress, it was NCNW’s hope that the statue be erected and dedicated in 1963 celebrating the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, but as the Civil Rights Movement intensified, so did NCNW’s involvement within it, and it took the organization a total of 16 years to see the project come to fruition.

Across the years, there have been many people who felt the Freedman’s Memorial was a negative depiction of African Americans. Frederick Douglass, who spoke at its dedication in 1876, was quoted as saying afterwards:

“What I want to see before I die is a monument representing the negro, not couchant on his knees like a four-footed animal, but erect on his feet like a man”.

There have also been many others, like Dr. Height, who have viewed it differently. She said:

“The National Council of Negro Women ... felt that somehow the history of this park had to keep pace with the record of contribution of Black Americans in national and international life, and it seemed to us that the fitting symbol of that was Mary McLeod Bethune.”
Brown and white tin mobile bank
An NCNW "Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial Fund" brown and white tin mobile bank, ca. 1960s.

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Thinking Out of the Box

It took a lot for NCNW and Dr. Height to build and fundraise for the monument. The organization and its membership were very crafty and creative, thinking "outside of the box," coming up with different ways to fundraise and build momentum for the statue and its eventual unveiling/dedication. The Memorial Fund was a program of the organization's Educational Foundation, chaired by NCNW stalwarts Daisy Lampkin, Dr. Dorothy Boulding Ferebee, and Vivian Carter Mason. Under Operation Grassroots, members and friends made a pledge of $24 with $2 down and $2 monthly for eleven months. Additonally, they continued to celebrate Mrs. Bethune's Birthday in grand-style every July 10th, and throughout the remaining decade into the seventies, members sold datebooks featuring Constance Bannister's International Babies photographs, special, limited edition Christmas cards, Daggett & Ramsdell Cosmetics and Perma-Silk by Daggett & Ramsdell, "Sweetheart Dollars," and collected all forms of money via their "Brown & White Boxes," which were little tin mobile banks, distributed to women across the country to serve as a reminder "that what Mrs. Bethune began had yet to be finished."

Fashion shows, pageants, cotillions, teas, and debutante balls were essential to fundraising, as was large donations by individuals and groups. One of NCNW's consistent problems had been lack of funds, caused in part because the organization did not qualify for tax-exempt status. Without this designation, foundations and philanthropists were unlikely to donate large sums of money to NCNW because they had to pay taxes on their gift. Dr. Height made it a priority to revise the Articles of Incorporation and make other changes that resulted in the U.S. Internal Revenue Service granting tax-exempt status in 1966—a major win for NCNW!

Like Mrs. Bethune before her, Dr. Height knew how and when to call on the "heavy-hitters," pop culture icons and celebrities for support, both personally and financially. Superstar perfomer Roberta Flack headlined a benefit concert, Accent for Greatness for the St. Louis, Missouri Section of NCNW; legendary entertainer Lena Horne presented Black Artists in Tribute to Mary McLeod Bethune; trailblazing actors-activists Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee lent their talents to the cause; poet Nikki Giovanni created an original work; and Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm and legendary contralto Marian Anderson served as Co-Chairs of the Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial Committee.
A large crowd gathers outside at a monument
18,000 people were on-hand to witness Dr. Dorothy Irene Height and the National Council of Negro Women, Inc. Dedicate the Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial in Lincoln Park, Washington, D.C. on July 10, 1974.

NPS/National Capital Region Public Affairs Collection

"Ma is in the Park!"

After 16 years and a total cost of $400,000 dollars, it was not until the 99th anniversary of Mrs. Bethune’s birth in 1974 that the Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial was unveiled and dedicated to a crowd of 18,000 people. Designed by Robert Berks, the Boston born sculptor that was noted for busts of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr., the Bethune Memorial was the first monument of an African American and a woman in a public park in the nation’s capital. It depicts Mrs. Bethune with two young children, as she looks into the distant future while passing her “Legacy” to the boy as the girl shares this moment in time with them. The tenants of her “Legacy” can be seen around the base of the statue. It is on an axis which includes monuments to Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Kennedy, and this artery stretches from Lincoln Park to the Potomac River. Both the Freedman’s Memorial and the Bethune Memorial represent the contributions of African Americans to community and national life and they symbolize the pride and heritage of a people who played an active role in the struggle for their emancipation. When Mrs. Bethune’s statue was erected, the NCNW had to get Congressional authorization to reposition the Freedman's Memorial so that it faced the Bethune Memorial.

The Bethune Memorial is of heroic proportions: the figure of Mrs. Bethune is twelve feet high and weighs approximately 2,000 pounds. The children are about nine feet tall and weigh roughly 1,000 pounds each. The almost lifelike figures are roughly textured. According to Berks, this technique gives the viewer a sense of movement, rhytm, and inner vitality. Mounted on a pedestal 20 feet wide, fourteen feet deep, six feet above ground level, and made of white concrete with an exposed aggregate of pinkish limestone, the monument gave a small neighborhood park on Capitol Hill a cool, new dimension! Architectural work for the monument was done by J. Max Bond, Jr. of New York. Art consultant for the memorial, Sol Nodel, F.R.S.A., artist illuminator, designed the wording for the base of the memorial. In addition to the actual memorial, the National Park Service (NPS) improved Lincoln Park before the ceremony and hired Hilyard R. Robinson, the noted architect and engineer, to redesign the layouot for the park, adding great detail to the park's cultural landscape, as well as benches, trees, and walkways.

Some of the dedicatory ceremony participants included award-winning actors Roscoe Lee Browne and Cicely Tyson, Congresswoman Chisholm, then Bethune-Cookman University president Dr. Richard V. Moore, then Director of the NPS Ronald H. Walker, then Secretary of the Department of Interior Rogers C.B. Morton, then Mayor of the District of Columbia Walter E. Washington, Rev. Andrew Young, and of course, Dr. Height. Noted guests in attendance were Albert McLeod Bethune, Sr. and Albert McLeod Bethune, Jr. (Mrs. Bethune's son and grandson, respectively), Mrs. Coretta Scott King, Dr. Betty Shabazz, and Congresswomen Barbara Jordan, Yvonne Burke, and Cardiss Collins. Following the dedication ceremony, there was a parade from the D.C. Armory to U.S. Capitol steps (on the west side), where the crowd met with Vice President Gerald Ford and Speaker of the House Carl Albert. In total, the celebration lasted for three days and included an awards ceremony for African American women and a concert at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Large bronze statue outside in a public park
The Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial in Lincoln Park, Washington, D.C.


Celebrating and Living the Legacy

Every year since the Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial was dedicated in 1974, the National Park Service has honored Mary McLeod Bethune with events on or around her birthday. Each of these events highlight her amazing life and showcases her legacy for all to remember, and we incorporate the memorial into our programming.

Below, you can find the tenets of her Last Will and Testament or "Legacy," which are also found around the base of the memorial:

  • I LEAVE YOU LOVE. Love builds. It is positive and helpful. It is more beneficial than hate...Loving your neighbor means being interracial, interreligious, and international.

  • I LEAVE YOU HOPE. The Negro's growth will be great in the years to come. Yesterday, our ancestors endured the degradation of slavery, yet they retained their dignity.

  • I LEAVE YOU THE CHALLENGE OF DEVELOPING CONFIDENCE IN ONE ANOTHER. As long as Negroes are hemmed into racial blocs of prejudice and pressure, it will be necessary for them to band together for economic betterment.

  • I LEAVE YOU A THIRST FOR EDUCATION. Knowledge is the prime need of the hour.

  • I LEAVE YOU A RESPECT FOR THE USE OF POWER. We live in a world which respects power above all things. Power, intelligently directed, can lead to more freedom. Unwisely directed, it can be a dreadful destructive force.

  • I LEAVE YOU FAITH. Faith is the first factor in a life devoted to service. Without faith nothing is possible. With it, nothing is impossible. Faith in God is the greatest power, but great too, is faith in oneself.

  • I LEAVE YOU RACIAL DIGNITY. I want Negroes to maintain their human dignity at all costs. We, as Negroes, must recognize that we are the custodians as well as the heirs of a great civilization. We have given something to the world as a race and for this we are proud and fully conscious of our place in the total picture of mankind's development.

  • I LEAVE YOU A DESIRE TO LIVE HARMONIOUSLY WITH YOUR FELLOW MAN. The problem of color is world-wide. It is found in Africa and Asia, Europe and South America. I appeal to American Negroes - both North and, South, East and West - to recognize their common problems and unite to solve them.

  • I LEAVE YOU, FINALLY, A RESPONSIBILITY TO OUR YOUNG PEOPLE. The world around us really belongs to youth, for youth will take over its future management. Our children must never, lose their zeal for building a better world. They must not be discouraged from aspiring toward greatness, for they are to be the leaders of tomorrow...The Freedom Gates are half a-jar. We must pry them fully open.

Men, women, and children of all backgrounds are invited and welcome to celebrate Mrs. Bethune—and to "Live the Legacy" she left for all of us.

Last updated: May 30, 2024

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Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site
1318 Vermont Avenue NW

Washington, DC 20005



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