Bronze Mary McLeod Bethune statue settles in on Daytona Beach riverfront

·9 min read

DAYTONA BEACH — The last leg of the very long journey taken by the bronze likeness of Mary McLeod Bethune is now complete.

Made from a maquette and carefully crafted in an artists' studio in a tiny Italian hamlet, the bronze statue was crated and shipped across the Atlantic to Miami, then trucked to Daytona Beach.

On Wednesday morning, the 829-pound bronze sculpture and its separate 14,050-pound granite pedestal base were hoisted into place in their new home inside the city's Riverfront Esplanade.

The 13-foot-tall display now stands in a plaza specially created for the bronze work of art that celebrates the founder of Bethune-Cookman University, who was also a civil rights and women's rights pioneer, a force in Washington, D.C., for decades and the champion of Black Daytona Beach residents who fought for their most basic needs and rights.

A new bronze statue of Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune was placed Wednesday morning into the plaza at Daytona Beach's Riverfront Esplanade that was created and named in Bethune's honor. The official unveiling ceremony for the new statue overlooking Beach Street will be held at 9 a.m. Aug. 18.
A new bronze statue of Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune was placed Wednesday morning into the plaza at Daytona Beach's Riverfront Esplanade that was created and named in Bethune's honor. The official unveiling ceremony for the new statue overlooking Beach Street will be held at 9 a.m. Aug. 18.

It was no easy task maneuvering the 8-foot-tall, 40-inch-wide bronze sculpture, nor the 5-foot-high granite pedestal the statue now stands on. It took three hours Wednesday morning to carefully unpack and place the statue made by an artist who lives part of the year in Florida and the rest in Pietrasanta, Italy.

With barricades closing off Beach Street between the News-Journal Center and the Brown & Brown insurance company office tower, the 7.5-ton statue base was first to be hoisted into position in the plaza on the east side of Beach Street.

Large white straps were looped around the pedestal, and then hooks on an all-terrain crane attached to the straps. The crane with a 165-foot-long boom lifted the pedestal over power lines, traffic lights and light poles and gently placed the hulking block of shiny granite into place.

As Brown & Brown employees watched from the windows of their offices and a few dozen people at street level took in the spectacle, the same procedure was used for the statue.

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As the sculpture still hung in the air over the plaza about five feet off the ground, key statue project organizer Nancy Lohman slipped a note into a hole on the bottom of the work of art.

The message left to be found in the future said the statue was "created with love by Nilda Comas." It said the work was made to honor Bethune, and added, "May she always be our guiding light for the Daytona Beach, Florida, community to live harmoniously with one another."

The morning sun silhouettes the new bronze statue of Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune at Bethune Plaza along Beach Street in Daytona Beach, Wednesday, August 10, 2022.
The morning sun silhouettes the new bronze statue of Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune at Bethune Plaza along Beach Street in Daytona Beach, Wednesday, August 10, 2022.

As Lohman was slipping in the note, four pins were attached to the corners of the bottom of the statue and eased down into holes on the top of the pedestal to secure the bronze work of art into position. Epoxy was squeezed into the holes to lock everything in place.

Grout was poured under the base to prevent water from seeping underneath it in the future, and to help level the statue.

Daytona Beach's celebration of Bethune

The statue now stands in the round plaza facing west down Mary McLeod Bethune Boulevard and toward the school she led from the early 1900s until her death in 1955. The plaza named for Bethune is elevated above street level and framed by six magnolia trees.

All four sides of the pedestal are engraved with gold lettering. The front features a quote from Bethune: "Invest in the human soul. Who knows, it may be a diamond in the rough." The other sides list names of dozens of donors.

The plaza flanked by Beach Street and the Halifax River is part of the $31 million transformation of Riverfront Park into an esplanade with dozens of new mature trees, newly planted flower beds, chairs and benches to sit and gaze out at the river, swings for both kids and adults, a raised overlook behind the News-Journal Center and a dog park.

A crane with a 165-foot-long boom was used Wednesday morning to hoist the new bronze statue of Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune over power lines and street lights and into place in a new plaza along the Halifax River in downtown Daytona Beach.
A crane with a 165-foot-long boom was used Wednesday morning to hoist the new bronze statue of Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune over power lines and street lights and into place in a new plaza along the Halifax River in downtown Daytona Beach.

The bronze statue will be officially unveiled Aug. 18 during a 9 a.m. ceremony open to the public. The ceremony will be held rain or shine.

After the statue was secured into its new post Wednesday, it was boxed with large wooden panels that will shield the work of art from view until next week's unveiling.

Because it's likely to be hot and most people at the event will have to stand, the ceremony will last only 30 minutes and fans will be handed out to help participants stay cool. Two tents will be set up for those who need a break from the sun, and bottled water will be available for anyone getting too parched.

On the front of the special commemorative fans are pictures of both the bronze and marble Bethune statues created by master sculptor Nilda Comas. The marble statue was unveiled July 13 in its new home, National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol building.

The back side of the handheld fans includes passages from Bethune's last will and testament: "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 respect for the uses of power, I leave you faith, I leave you racial dignity, I leave you a desire to live harmoniously with your fellow man, I leave you finally a responsibility to our young people."

The 7.5 ton granite pedestal for the new bronze Mary McLeod Bethune statue had be lifted  by a crane Wednesday to get to its new post in a plaza in Daytona Beach's Riverfront Esplanade.
The 7.5 ton granite pedestal for the new bronze Mary McLeod Bethune statue had be lifted by a crane Wednesday to get to its new post in a plaza in Daytona Beach's Riverfront Esplanade.

The Bethune-Cookman University Concert Choral will perform twice during the ceremony, and the invocation will be delivered by the Rev. Courtney Allen of Stewart Memorial United Methodist Church.

The pledge of allegiance will be led by Derrick “D.J.” Henry, Jr., son of Daytona Beach Mayor Derrick Henry.

Speakers at the event will include the mayor; Lohman, who is president of the Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune Statuary Fund, Inc.; Volusia County Councilwoman Billie Wheeler; Robert W. Lloyd, executive vice president and general counsel for Brown & Brown Insurance; Lawrence Drake, interim president of Bethune-Cookman University; Johnny McCray, Jr., president of the Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune National Alumni Association; and Florida state Rep. Tom Leek.

Organizations that gave sizable financial assistance as well as in-kind service support were invited to attend. On that invite list are Volusia County officials, those involved with the ECHO program, city of Daytona Beach officials, Ormond Beach city officials, and Racing & Recreational Facilities District officials. Also invited are top Bethune-Cookman officials, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune National Alumni Association leadership and members of the Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune Statuary Fund Board of Directors.

How the Bethune statues came to be

The decision for Comas to create the bronze statue was made shortly after the initial approvals were in place for the marble state to be permanently displayed in the Capitol.

Every state is represented in National Statuary Hall by two statues. In 2016, Florida lawmakers passed legislation allowing one of the state's two statues to be removed and replaced with a new work of art.

In 2018, Bethune was chosen to represent Florida in the room ringed with statues. Shortly after that, Comas was chosen to create the marble Bethune statue. Last month she became the first Hispanic woman to have her work displayed in the National Statuary Hall State Collection.

Comas earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from the New York Academy and she studied at the Accademia di Belli Arte in Carrara, Italy.

Comas chose to clothe Bethune in academic regalia in the two identical statues to symbolize her commitment to education. The walking stick in her right hand is modeled after a gift she received from President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The black rose in her left is a reminder of how she lovingly referred to her students as black roses after seeing a black rose while visiting Switzerland in 1927. Black roses became her symbol of unity for all people.

The stacked books at the statues' feet are each sculpted with the tenets of her Last Will and Testament and her core values.

The names of everyone who donated $1,000 or more to the statue effort are engraved on the granite pedestal beneath the statue.

The Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune Statuary Fund, Inc. was formed in 2018 to raise private revenue for the statuary project. Nearly 400 individual donors contributed.

The Statuary Fund board also raised money to create a feature-length documentary on Bethune, which will be shown for the first time in October.

The board also raised money for a new K-12 curriculum module on Bethune and sponsorship of five Bethune-Cookman University graduates who performed at the blessing ceremony of the marble statue in Italy in July 2021.

A temporary exhibit of the marble statue in Daytona Beach last fall was sponsored and facilitated by the board and seen by nearly 15,000 visitors. The marble statue also made a stop in Bethune’s South Carolina hometown on its way to Washington, D.C.

Who was Mary McLeod Bethune?

Bethune was born on a farm near Mayesville, South Carolina, in 1875. She was the 15th child of former slaves, and she rose from humble beginnings.

When she moved to Daytona Beach at the turn of the century, she dreamed of starting a school for girls. In 1904 she made that dream come true with $1.50 and five girls.

That little school in a rented building evolved into Bethune-Cookman University.

Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary McLeod Bethune, center, meet at Bethune-Cookman College in 1952.
Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary McLeod Bethune, center, meet at Bethune-Cookman College in 1952.

Bethune became a respected educator, civil and human rights leader, and advisor to five U.S. presidents.

She championed civil rights, education, women’s rights, voter registration drives, antilynching campaigns and employment opportunities for Blacks and women. As president of the State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, she led the fight against school segregation and inadequate health care for children.

She was president of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs and founded the National Council of Negro Women. She was appointed to numerous commissions including Calvin Coolidge’s Child Welfare Conference, Herbert Hoover’s National Commission on Child Welfare, and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s "Black Cabinet."

Roosevelt appointed her to be director of the National Youth Administration, establishing her as the first Black woman to lead a federal agency. Bethune was also a delegate to the inaugural 1945 United Nations Conference.

You can reach Eileen at Eileen.Zaffiro@news-jrnl.com

This article originally appeared on The Daytona Beach News-Journal: A new Mary McLeod Bethune statue now stands on Daytona's riverfront