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Detail of plaster sculpture

Mary McLeod Bethune Sculpture

Why Is the Statue Important?

Marble sculpture of Mary McLeod Bethune installed in the U.S. Capitol

​​​The ​​​statue of Mary McLeod Bethune symbolizes the life and legacy of a devoted educator, organizer, and institutional builder. Bethune’s influence helped African American women claim citizenship rights and shaped American democracy overall. In the Capitol’s Statuary Hall, Bethune’s marble statue sits beside civil rights activist Rosa Parks. Parks carried the torch of equal rights that Bethune helped ignite five decades prior. ​​

​​In recognition of the honor given to Mary McLeod Bethune at the U.S. Capitol, the National Museum of African American History and Culture collected the original plaster model used to create the Bethune statue. The model stands on the museum's third floor at the center of an exhibit dedicated to women who were forces for social change. Bethune’s statue honors her accomplishments and the women who came before and after her.​

Marble sculpture of Mary McLeod Bethune installed in the U.S. Capitol

Symbolism in the Sculpture

Nilda Comas’s artistic vision shaped her sculpture of Mary McLeod Bethune. Comas began with a series of questions:

• Who was Mary McLeod Bethune?

• How did she represent herself?

• How would she want to be depicted?

Comas viewed photographs of Bethune at the Library of Congress, read books and articles, spoke with Bethune’s family and friends, and interviewed members of the National Council of Negro Women (which Bethune founded).

White plaster statue of woman dressed in academic regalia holding a black rose in her left hand and a walking cane in her right hand.

Original Plaster Model of Mary McLeod Bethune Statue

On July 13, 2022, a marble sculpture of Mary McLeod Bethune was installed in National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol, one of two figures chosen to represent the state of Florida. Bethune is the first African American, and the second woman, to be honored with a state-commissioned statue in the hall. The Florida Legislature selected Bethune to replace a statue of a Confederate general.

Explore the original plaster model created by artist Nilda Comas, who won the commission to create the sculpture of Bethune.

About the Sculptor

Nilda Comas, sculptor of the Mary McLeod Bethune sculpture

American sculptor Nilda Comas was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico. ​With dual residency in the United States and Italy, she divides her time between Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Pietrasanta, Italy. Comas cites the clay and marble studios and foundries in Pietrasanta as the best in the world and vital to her growth as a sculptor.

In 2018, Comas was chosen from 1,600 applicants to create the eight-foot-tall marble sculpture in the U.S. Capitol Building.

Nilda Comas, sculptor of the Mary McLeod Bethune sculpture

The more I got to know Mary McLeod Bethune the more I loved her and admired her. So I was really proud to be the one who was honored to do her sculpture.

Nilda Comas, 2023

Artist's Process

Comas working on the eight-foot, gray clay model

Comas began the process of creating this plaster model by sculpting a one-foot model in plastiline—a reusable, oil-infused clay. Comas generally uses clay from the Arno River, which flows through Tuscany (where she lives) to nearby Florence and Pisa. The clay is notable for its elasticity and purity. Comas molded increasingly large clay models until they reached eight feet.

To create a permanent plaster model, a mold maker layered the eight-foot clay model with plaster. The wet plaster then hardened around the clay, forming a mold. After opening the mold and using soap to clean away the clay from each section, the mold maker constructed an armature, a metal frame that supports the plaster model.

Comas working on the eight-foot, gray clay model

From Plaster to Marble

Measuring the plaster statue with the macchinetta in the artist's studio

Comas carves details on the marble sculpture

The plaster model bears marks of a macchinetta, a measuring device sculptors use to make accurate marble copies. More than three thousand reference points were placed on the plaster model during the measuring process. Drawing on ancient hand-sculpting pointing systems, the reference points guided Comas’s use of manual and electric tools during the sculpting process. Comas used a solid block of white marble excavated from the mountains of Carrara, Tuscany, the same place where Michelangelo—considered the greatest sculptor in history—sourced his marble.

Measuring the plaster statue with the macchinetta in the artist's studio

Comas carves details on the marble sculpture

Marble and Bronze Sculptures

Bronze sculpture of Mary McLeod Bethune in Esplanade Park, Daytona Beach, Florida

Nilda Comas used this plaster model to make two sculptures of Mary McLeod Bethune—one in marble and one in bronze. The bronze sculpture is at Bethune-Cookman University, the historically Black university founded by Bethune in Daytona Beach, Florida. The marble sculpture rests in the National Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol building. Inscribed on both statues is a quote attributed to Bethune: “Invest in the human soul. Who knows, it might be a diamond in the rough.”

Bronze sculpture of Mary McLeod Bethune in Esplanade Park, Daytona Beach, Florida