Honoring the past: nurse-turned-sculptor inspires FDR coin design

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(In observance of Black History Month, Air Force District of Washington recognizes achievements by Black Americans and honors their central role in U.S. history. Throughout the month, AFDW will provide historical facts about Black Americans who made significant impact during pivotal points in the nation’s sociopolitical history.)

Many people might recall growing up with piggy banks to save their allowance, and some may wonder about the inspirations of the designs on coins they deposited.

A nurse-turned-sculptor, most famous for inspiring the likeness of President Franklin D. Roosevelt on the U.S. dime, had a profound impact on American history.

Born in Mooresville, N.C., on Dec. 31, 1900, renowned sculptor Selma Burke grew up fascinated by African ritual objects and other sculptural pieces.

As a child, she resourcefully shaped white clay from her parents’ farm to begin making sculptures of her own. After enrolling at Agnes Hospital Nursing School in Raleigh, N.C., Burke moved to New York City to work as a private nurse.

But her fascination with art never waned; in fact, her inspiration only grew amid the burgeoning Harlem Renaissance movement. Burke resumed her focus on art and in 1938, she studied with Aristide Maillol and Henri Matisse in Europe after earning both Rosenwald and Boehler Foundation Fellowships.

Upon completing a Master of Fine Arts degree at Columbia University in 1941, Burke began to teach art, first at the Harlem Community Art Center and later at schools she founded in New York and Pittsburgh.

Interestingly, her most famous work, a bas relief plaque of FDR, emerged from a competition to sculpt the president for the Recorder of Deeds Office in Washington, D.C.

Struggling to capture the likeness of Roosevelt from photographs, Burke wrote to the White House and, to her surprise, was granted a 15-minute sitting with the president.

Then-First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt later visited Burke’s studio to view the finished plaque, and was pleased with how youthful he appeared, despite being in his 60s. FDR died in April, just five months before the official unveiling of the plaque in September 1945.

To commemorate FDR's legacy and his founding of the non-profit organization March of Dimes to combat polio, the U.S. Mint and Congress proposed engraving his portrait on the dime, which originally featured a profile of the goddess Liberty donning a winged cap.

The Roosevelt dime design, though officially credited to then-U.S. Mint Chief Engraver John Sinnock, was one many scholars contend was greatly inspired by Burke’s original work.

Burke’s last monumental work, a statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. that graces Marshall Park in Charlotte, N.C., was completed in 1980.

She died in New Hope, Pa. in 1995.

(Source: North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources https://www.ncdcr.gov/; Photos: Smithsonian American Art Museum; Master Sgt. Amaani Lyle contributed to this story)