Bronze Tribute to a Black Leader Balances Lincoln Park Monument

THE many circles, squares, and triangles of this city are peopled by statuary of the nation's best. At every turn, heroes, statesmen, and warriors fix their gazes for posterity on the spoking diagonal avenues. Only one statue is dedicated to a black American.

In this majority-black city, there are the requisite memorials to Martin Luther King Jr. - an avenue and a modern library. There is the Duke Ellington Bridge, Frederick Douglass's Cedar Hill residence, and the anonymous black soldier, one of the ``Three Servicemen'' at the Vietnam War Memorial.

But the capital's first statue memorial to a black in a public park - as well as its first to a woman, according to ``The Guide to Black Washington'' - is in Lincoln Park on the east slope of Capitol Hill, tucked away off the main tourist circuits.

It is the Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial to the groundbreaking educator of young black women. The daughter of Florida sharecroppers, Mrs. Bethune founded Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Fla., in 1923, served in President Franklin D. Roosevelt's informal Depression-era ``black cabinet,'' and was the first black woman to head a federal office as director of Negro affairs in 1936.

The bronze sculpture by Robert Berks portrays Bethune resting on a cane given to her by President Roosevelt and handing two children her will.

The memorial was conceived in 1958 by Washington businessman Dolphin G. Thompson, who wanted to clean up the dilapidated park in the heart of a black neighborhood and add some symbolic symmetry. The park was already the site of the Lincoln Emancipation Statue - a sculpture of Lincoln with a freed black slave. Mr. Thompson, the great-grandson of a slave, envisioned a statue honoring a black American.

He recalls today that his research to find the appropriate historical figure to honor showed that Bethune was ``perhaps the most widely known black American at that time.''

Not only were there raised eyebrows among white officials to the idea of a black memorial, says Thompson, but the white Florida senator who helped behind the scenes to rally support in Congress for the memorial would not let his name be used. And, he says, the '60s civil rights movement took so much energy that the momentum for the memorial stalled. The statue was finally erected in 1974.

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