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  • Marci Hilt

Mary McLeod Bethune

July’s Woman of Ward 6 is Mary McLeod Bethune, an educator and an activist. Although she didn’t live or work in Ward 6, Bethune holds a special place of honor in Ward 6’s Lincoln Park, the largest park on Capitol Hill. Not only was Bethune born in July, the bronze statue that honors her was unveiled on July 10, 1974, which was her 99th birthday.

The statue features an elderly Mrs. Bethune handing a copy of her legacy to two young Black children. Mrs. Bethune is supporting herself by a cane used by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, reportedly given to her by Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

Women of Ward 6 is a non-partisan recognition of Ward 6’s women, sponsored by the Ward 6 Democrats, the National Woman’s Party, Capitol Hill Restoration Society and the Hill Rag. It celebrates the passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote.

Mary Jane McLeod was born on July 10, 1875, in a small log cabin near Mayesville, S.C., the youngest daughter of two former slaves. She started working in fields with her family when she was five.

The family was so poor that only Bethune could be sent to school. It proved a wise choice, as she not only learned rapidly, but would come home and teach her parents and siblings what she had learned that day. This love of learning continued on when she was an adult. In 1904, after several jobs as a teacher, she opened her own school in Daytona, Florida. This school, opened with $1.50 and five students, would eventually become Bethune-Cookman University.

The school bordered Daytona's dump. Bethune, parents of students, and church members raised money by making sweet potato pies, ice cream, and fried fish, and selling them to crews at the dump.

In the early days, the students made ink for pens from elderberry juice, and pencils from burned wood; they asked local businesses for furniture. Bethune wrote later, "I considered cash money as the smallest part of my resources. I had faith in a loving God, faith in myself, and a desire to serve." The school received donations of money, equipment, and labor from local Black churches. Within a year, Bethune was teaching more than 30 girls at the school.

Bethune was also known for helping found the National Council of Negro Women in 1935 and for being part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Black Cabinet,” as well as a close friend and advisor to Eleanor Roosevelt, his wife.

The National Council of Negro Women began raising funds in 1959 for a memorial to Bethune. Before her statue was unveiled in Lincoln Park, the part of the park where her statue was to go was lowered, so her statue would not rise above the Lincoln statue. Also, the Lincoln statue was turned – it had formerly faced the U.S. Capitol, but now it faces Bethune.

The monument, owned by the National Park Service, is the first statue erected on public land in Washington, DC, to honor an African American and a woman. The statue was done by Robert Berks, who also did the Albert Einstein Memorial in Washington, DC. One of Berk’s most famous works is the bust of former President John Fitzgerald Kennedy that is in the Grand Foyer of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

The inscription on the front of the Bethune statue reads: “Let her works praise her,” which speaks of Mrs. Bethune’s many accomplishments as an educator, public servant, presidential advisory, women’s rights activist and civil rights activist.

A bronze plaque running around the side of the base reads: “I leave you love. I leave you hope. I leave you the challenge of developing confidence in one another. I leave you a thirst for education. I leave you a respect for the use of power. I leave you faith. I leave you racial dignity. I leave you a desire to live harmoniously with your fellow men. I leave you finally, a responsibility to our young people. Mary McLeod Bethune.”

The open space that is now Lincoln Park was part of Pierre L’Enfant’s original 1791 plan for the District of Columbia and was intended for public use. In 1867, when Congress officially named the park Lincoln Square, it was the first site to bear the name of the martyred president.

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Ward 6 Democrats are sponsoring a free one-hour tour of the Mary McLeod Bethune Statue in Lincoln Park on Saturday, July 24, at 10 a.m., weather permitting. Capitol Hill Professional Tour Guide and Author Robert Pohl will be leading the tour. Meet at the Bethune Statue at 9:45 a.m. Contact Marci Hilt (202) 547-6327 or to sign up or for more details.

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The Women of Ward 6 Initiative is a non-partisan recognition of Ward 6’s women by the Ward 6 Democrats, in partnership with the National Woman’s Party, Capitol Hill Restoration Society and the Hill Rag. The initiative began in 2019 to highlight the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote.

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Marci Hilt grew up on a small-scale grain, poultry and dairy farm in Northwest Ohio. She is a retired communications coordinator and press secretary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. She currently writes and edits EMMCA MATTERS and is treasurer of the Ward 6 Democrats.

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