For Mary McLeod Bethune’s 99th birthday, the National Council of Negro Women commissioned and raised funds for a memorial dedicated to the activist. Designed by Robert Berks, the memorial in Lincoln Park features Bethune with a cane in her right hand and a scroll representing knowledge and education in her left. The cane, thought to be one gifted to her by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s death, recognizes her position as a presidential advisor. The scroll she holds in her other hand represents her work as an education activist, with her passing the scroll to two children as a continuation of education to the next generation.
Bethune’s multidimensional activism made her a pioneer in multiple social movements. As previously mentioned, she led education efforts and worked with President Roosevelt under the National Youth Administration. In addition to this, she also contributed to the civil rights and women’s rights movements, founding the National Council of Negro Women that brought together multiple women’s activist groups. Before moving to the location on Pennsylvania Avenue, Bethune opened her own home on Vermont Avenue NW to the council in the 1940s through the 1960s. Bethune’s legacy impacted numerous communities, and her work continues after her death.
The memorial, dedicated in 1974, is the first dedicated to an African American on public land in DC; additionally, it was the first portrait statue to an American woman erected on a public site in the city. In testimony to her accomplishments, the plaque below the statue reflects the many tenets of her activism, and calls upon viewers to do the same. Its location across from the Emancipation Monument also ties it to other historic moments in African American history.
Within Capitol Hill Historic District.
This site is part of the Commemorative Monuments and Memorials of DC tour.