Posts Tagged ‘First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’

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The Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial Statue

On this lunchtime bike ride I rode to Lincoln Park, which is the largest urban park in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of northeast D.C., as well as one of the oldest parks in the national capitol city. Situated one mile directly east of the United States Capitol Building and four blocks northeast of Historic Eastern Market, it is bounded by 11th Street on the west, 13th Street on the east, the westbound lanes of East Capitol Street on the North, and East Capitol Street’s eastbound lanes on the south (MAP).  I rode to the park to see the memorial to Mary McLeod Bethune, which is in the eastern end of the park, directly across the park’s plaza, opposite The Emancipation Memorial.

Mary Jane McLeod was born on July 10, 1875, in a small log cabin in Mayesville, South Carolina. She was the fifteenth of seventeen children born to Sam and Patsy McIntosh McLeod, both former slaves. At an early age Mary began working, both in fields and by accompanying her mother to deliver “white people’s” laundry. She was also allowed to go into the white children’s nursery, where she became fascinated with their toys. One day when she picked up a book a white child took it away from her, saying that she didn’t know how to read. It was then that Mary decided that the only difference between white and colored folk was the ability to read and write. This inspired her to want to learn, and eventually to want to educate others.

McLeod began attending the local, one-room black schoolhouse. She was the only child in her family to attend school, but each day she would come home and teach her family what she had learned. Her teacher, Emma Jane Wilson, became young Mary’s mentor, and even helped Mary get a scholarship to attend her alma mater, Scotia Seminary, now known as Barber-Scotia College. She later also attended Dwight L. Moody’s Institute for Home and Foreign Missions in Chicago, now the Moody Bible Institute. She had initially hoped to become a missionary in Africa. But after being told that black missionaries were not needed, she began a teaching career that would become a large part of her lasting legacy.

Mary married Albertus Bethune in 1898, with whom she had a son named Albert the following year.  Albertus left the family in 1907 and relocated to South Carolina, but they never got a divorce. Albertus subsequently died from tuberculosis in 1918.  Albert Bethune grew up to become the coordinator of vocational services at Bethune-Cookman College, which was founded by his mother, where he worked until he retired.  He passed away at the age of 90 in 1989.

Mrs. Bethune’s background as a teacher inspired her to open the Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls in Daytona Beach, Florida, in 1904. After merging with the Cookman Institute, the school became Bethune-Cookman College. She not only proved her expertise as an educator, through her work with the college she also developed skills as an organizer and fundraiser. She would later employ these skills, when in 1935 she founded the National Council of Negro Women. Through research, advocacy, and national and community-based services and programs in both the United States and Africa, the National Council of Negro Women continues to this day as a non-profit organization with a mission of representing the national and international concerns of Black women.

In addition to being an educator and an organizer, she was also a political activist, and the first African American woman to be involved in The White House. She assisted four different presidents during her lifetime, but through her close and loyal friendship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and President Franklin D. Roosevelt, she had the most significant influence on President Roosevelt’s New Deal Government. She used her access and influence to form a coalition of leaders from black organizations called the Federal Council of Negro Affairs, which came to be known as the “Black Cabinet,” and served as an advisory board to the Roosevelt administration on issues facing black people in America.

In addition to her influence with presidents and others in the government, Bethune also became an employee of the Federal government. The National Youth Administration was a Federal agency created with the support of the Works Progress Administration, which administered provided programs to promote relief and employment for young people. It focused on unemployed citizens between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five who were not in school. Bethune lobbied the organization so aggressively and effectively for minority involvement that she earned a full-time staff position in 1936 as an assistant. Within two years, Bethune was appointed to position of Director of the Division of Negro Affairs, and as such, became the first African-American female division head in the Federal government.

Bethune died on May 18, 1955 at the age of 79.  Approximately twenty years later, on July 10, 1974, the anniversary of her 99th birthday, Bethune became the first black leader and the first woman to have a monument erected on public park land in D.C.  The statue, known as the Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial Statue, was designed by an American sculptor named Robert Berks, who also created hundreds of other bronze sculptures and monuments, including The Albert Einstein Memorial here in D.C.  The statue features an elderly Bethune handing a copy of her legacy to two young black children, as she supports herself with a cane given to her by President Roosevelt.

The memorial honors not only her legacy but her continuing influence through the college and the organization she founded. Bethune-Cookman College currently offers bachelor’s degrees in 26 major areas, and has graduated more than 13,000 students. And the National Council of Negro Women is today comprised of 39 national affiliates and over 240 sections, connecting more than four million women to the organization.

As I sat for a while in the park near the memorial, I watched as people walked their dogs, jogged, played with children, or simply relaxed and enjoyed the warm Spring day.  As I watched them, I wondered if any of them knew anything about the memorial, or who Mary McLeod Bethune was and the influence her life has had.  But now I do, and so do you.

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[Click on the thumbnails above to view the full size photos]

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The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial

The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial

When it comes to Presidential memorials in D.C., there have been occasions when people decide after the memorial is completed that it is not quite right, or not big enough, or somehow unbefitting the president who it is intended to honor. And instead of accepting or even modifying the original memorial, they build a second, grander presidential memorial, often in what is considered a more prominent location. And interestingly, it is usually the second memorial with which the public is most familiar.  This happened when The Original Washington Monument was deemed insufficient, and the giant obelisk on the National Mall was erected to honor our nation’s first president.

The same type of thing happened again more recently when the existing memorial to our nation’s 32nd president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was deemed inadequate, and another, larger memorial was constructed near the Tidal Basin (MAP), which is considered one of the most prominent locations in the national capitol city. It was to this memorial that I went on today’s bike ride.

The Original FDR Memorial, which relatively few people know about, is located near the corner of 9th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. In accordance with Roosevelt’s expressed wishes, the original memorial was erected in 1965 “in the center of the green plot in front of The National Archives and Records Administration Building (and) consists of a block about the size of (his) desk.”

Thirty-two years later, in contradiction to Roosevelt’s specific wishes, the more well-known FDR Memorial was dedicated.  The newer memorial is large, even by D.C. standards. Spread out over seven and a half acres on the southern side of The Tidal Basin, it traces 12 years of the history of the U.S. through a sequence of four outdoor “rooms,” one for each of his terms in office, from 1933 until his death in 1945.

The design of the memorial, by landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, was chosen in 1978, and it opened to the public in 1997 after a dedication ceremony led by President Bill Clinton.  As an historic area managed by the National Park Service, the memorial is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The memorial contains a number of sculptures inspired by famous photographs of Roosevelt. One depicts the 32nd president alongside his pet Scottie named Fala. It is the only presidential pet to be memorialized. Other sculptures depict scenes from the Great Depression, such as listening to a fireside chat on the radio and waiting in a bread line. Also included is a bronze statue of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt standing before the United Nations (UN) emblem, honoring her dedication to the UN. It is the only presidential memorial to depict a First Lady. Water is also used prominently in the memorial as a metaphorical device, including waterfalls depicting World War II and the Great Depression, and a still pool representing the 32nd president’s death.

However, like many memorials and monuments in D.C., the FDR Memorial is not without controversy. Taking into consideration Roosevelt’s disability, the memorial’s design is intended to make it accessible to those with various physical impairments. For example, the memorial includes an area with tactile reliefs with braille writing for people who are visually impaired. However, the memorial faced serious criticism from disabled activists because the braille dots were improperly spaced and some of the braille and reliefs were mounted eight feet off of the ground, placing it physically above the reach of most people.

Another controversy involves one of the statues of Roosevelt. Against the wishes of some disability-rights advocates and historians, the memorial’s designers initially decided against plans to have Roosevelt shown in a wheelchair. Although Roosevelt used a wheelchair in private, it was hidden from the public because of the stigma of weakness which was associated with any disability at that time. So instead, the main statue in the memorial depicts the president in a chair, with a cloak obscuring the chair, which is how he usually appeared to the public during his lifetime. In a compromise, casters were added to the back of the chair, making it a symbolic “wheelchair”. However, the casters are only visible from behind the statue, and this compromise did not satisfy either side. Eventually, an additional statue was added and placed near the memorial’s entrance which clearly depicts Roosevelt in a wheelchair much like the one he actually used.

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[Click on the photos to view the full-size versions]