Shortly after Mary McLeod Bethune founded her school in Daytona Beach — an accomplishment she made with just $1.50 and five girls in 1904 — she called one of the areas wealthiest men: John D. Rockefeller.
They had a nice conversation and Bethune told him all about her new school, then called the Daytona Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls, and what she wanted to achieve. Rockefeller was intrigued.
“At that time, not all heads of Black schools were Black," said Len Lempel, retired Daytona State College history professor. "Some were white, and Bethune had such a refined, articulate voice, that Rockefeller thought she was white. He invited her to come to The Casements and when she showed up, he was flabbergasted.”
But that didn't stop Bethune from her mission. Her school needed funding, and in that conversation, Rockefeller donated $62,000, equivalent to almost $2 million today. He also became one of the trustees for the school, said Lempel, who along with Ormond Beach resident Eric Breitenbach, is producing a documentary on Bethune's life and legacy.
Her exchange with Rockefeller shows how persuasive Bethune could be, he added.
“She was probably one of the most remarkable salespersons you’re ever going to hear about," Lempel said. "That’s something that people don’t realize. She was an educator, she was a politician, she was a leader, but she was a very astute salesperson and businesswoman.”
'The highest honor'
On Monday, Oct. 11, the lobby of the News-Journal Center at 221 N. Beach St. was standing-room only. Hundreds attended the unveiling of Bethune's statue, which will represent the state of Florida in the U.S. Statuary Hall State Collection. She will be the first Black American to be honored in the Statuary Hall State Collection, and the 10th woman. Her statue will be delivered to the U.S. Capitol in 2022, and will replace a 1922 bronze statue of Confederate Army General Edmund Kirby Smith.
But, before it makes its journey to Washington D.C., a place Bethune spent many years in as a civil rights advocate, the statue will remain on display in the News-Journal Center through Dec. 12. Admission into the exhibit will be free and open daily to the public from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Nancy Lohman, president of the Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune Statuary Fund, opened her remarks with Bethune's own words: “Our gaze is set. Our gait is steadfast. Our goal is service, and our mission is clear.”
“Those are the words from Mary McLeod Bethune that have been our guiding light throughout this statuary project," Lohman said.
The Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune Statuary Fund, a nonprofit organization, was created in 2018 to support the creation of Bethune's statue, which was approved by Florida Legislature and signed into law that year. The 11-foot, 3-ton statue was carved from marble obtained from Michelangelo's cave in Pietrasanta, Italy, and created by Nilda Comas, a Puerto Rican artist who is also the first Hispanic sculptor chosen for the Statuary Hall State Collection.
The statue was made possible by 340 unique donors, and Lohman announced a second sculpture — this one made by Comas in bronze — will be erected in Riverfront Park in Daytona Beach.
Comas said that she feels like she has been preparing for the creation of Bethune's statue all of her life. She was the only female artist among the 10 finalists chosen, and the only one that proposed the statue be made out of marble.
“From the beginning, I thought this sculpture needs to be in marble because that is the highest honor that you can give a person through history," she said.
Bethune's legacy may have had humble beginnings, but she was relentless in her pursuit of her dream until her death in 1955.
"She was going to build this school and it was going to grow, and it was going to educate and eventually become a college," Lempel said.
Her school, later renamed the Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls, merged with the Cookman Institute in 1931, forming what is now Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach.
In the decades in between, Bethune continues advocating for the rights of African Americans in Daytona Beach. In 1905, she convinces the City Council to endorse her school, and to hire two Black policemen to patrol the Black neighborhood. In 1911, she opened the first Black hospital after one of her students fell ill with appendicitis.
Bethune also became a good friend of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt. They were so close, that when Daytona State College founder Mary Karl needed help with her own college, Bethune accompanied her to have tea with Eleanor Roosevelt, recounted Thomas LoBasso, current DSC president at the statue's unveiling.
As the three woman had tea, a deal was struck for the federal government to turn over 29 acres, along with 55 buildings to the Volusia County School Board, and would later become the Daytona Beach Community College.
“So when I say that Daytona State College would not be where it is today without her assistance, it’s true in a very literal sense," LoBasso said. "Our campus is part of her legacy, and it’s a gift — one that we strive to honor every day by bringing to life her passion for education.”
A crown jewel
Lempel hopes to complete his documentary by June 2022. Now with funds granted from the Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune Statuary Fund, the project has been steadily moving forward. At the statue's unveiling, his colleage Breitenbach navigated the crowd with a camera in hand, captivating every impassioned speech.
Hiram Powell, interim president of Bethune-Cookman University, spoke of Bethune's faith, calling it a cornerstone of her legacy and existence.
“She is truly one of the crown jewels of our city, of our state and our nation," Powell said.
There were times when Bethune did not feel like pressing on, said Daytona Beach Mayor Derrick Henry, who also serves on the Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune Statuary Fund board. But still, she pressed on.
“When history records how we as a community responded to our role as custodians of this great legacy, let the record read that Daytona Beach passed the test with straight superiors," Henry said.
Statuary Fund board member and Volusia County Councilwoman Billie Wheeler said Bethune exemplified "all that is great about humanity," and that 66 years after her death, Bethune continues to inspire people to put aside their differences, serve their community and fight for social justice.
“These goals were paramount 100 years ago, and they are even more important today," Wheeler said. "Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune is a beacon of hope, and her vision of education, equality and empowerment lives on.”
To reserve tickets to the exhibit at the News-Journal Center, visit https://www.mmbstatue.org/