Selma Hortense Burke was a sculptor who crafted images in the likenesses of famed figures such as Booker T. Washington, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. among others. Ms. Burke’s most notable accomplishment by most accounts is a sculpture of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which some say is the inspiration for the image found on the dime coin.
Burke was born December 31, 1900 in Moorsesville, N.C. as one of 10 children to her minister father and home maker mother. She attended what is now known as Winston-Salem University and graduates from the St. Agnes Nursing School in Raleigh, N.C. After moving to New York, Burke’s second marriage to Harlem Renaissance writer Claude McKay introduced her to the world of art and shifted her career focus.
The brief union to McKay led to Burke working with the Works Progress Administration and the Harlem Artists Guild while also teaching art to Harlem youth. Burke studied abroad in Europe, most notably in Vienna, and then graduated with a Master’s in Fine Arts from Columbia University in 1941. The following year, Burke enlisted in the U.S. Navy, one of the first Black women to do so. In 1944, a sculpture she was commissioned by the Navy to create a bust of President Roosevelt.
Some reports seem to suggest that U.S. Chief Engraver John R. Sinnock fashioned his image of FDR for the dime coin based on Burke’s sculpture. Sinnock denied the claims and said that his depiction of the president was based on works he created in the ’30’s. To date, there has been no official decree of Burke actually being the true inspiration.
Despite the origin of the dime’s image, Burke enjoyed quite a rich career. She founded two art schools, one in New York, the Selma Burke School of Sculpture in 1940, and the Selma Burke Art Center in Pittsburgh, Penn. in 1968. Burke has been recognized for her efforts in bringing art to youth, especially poor children of color.
Burke worked well into her old age, including unveiling the statue of King that was unveiled when she was in her 80s. The statue, her final piece before retiring, is on display at Marshall Park in Charlotte, N.C. Many of Burke’s works appear at Winston-Salem University and at both Spelman College and Atlanta University in Atlanta, Ga.
PHOTO: Smithsonian Institution