[Congressional Record Volume 140, Number 150 (Tuesday, December 20, 1994)]
[Extensions of Remarks]
[Page E]
From the Congressional Record Online through the Government Printing Office [www.gpo.gov]

[Congressional Record: December 20, 1994]
From the Congressional Record Online via GPO Access [wais.access.gpo.gov]



                           HON. LOUIS STOKES

                                of ohio

                    in the house of representatives

                       Tuesday, December 20, 1994

  Mr. STOKES. Mr. Speaker, there are many African-Americans and other 
people of color who have made significant contributions to the 
development of this Nation. Today I come to share with my colleagues a 
special article which appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper 
about one such individual. The article explores the life of Dr. Selma 
Burke, a remarkably gifted African-American sculptor whose outstanding 
artwork has been featured at the Malcolm Brown Gallery in the 11th 
Congressional District.
  Dr. Burke, now 93 years of age, was first noted for her mastery of 
art during the Harlem Renaissance period of the 1920's and 1930's. Her 
involvement in the field of art spans more than 5 decades. In fact, Dr. 
Burke remains one of the oldest African-American artists still actively 
involved in the visual arts. She is the founder of the Selma Burke 
School of Sculpture in New York City and the Selma Burke Art Center in 
  Despite the success Dr. Burke has enjoyed in the field of art, 
however, the recognition for one of her most famed works eluded her for 
many years. In 1943, Dr. Burke won the District of Columbia Fine Arts 
Commission competition for her bronze plaque of President Roosevelt. 
Today, this plaque hangs in the Recorder of Deeds Office here in 
Washington, DC, and according to scholars, is the basis for the image 
of President Franklin D. Roosevelt which appears on the United States 
  Mr. Speaker, I recently had the pleasure of meeting with Dr. Burke 
during a special exhibition in Shaker Heights, OH. On Sunday, December 
11, 1994, she was the guest of Ernestine and Malcolm Brown, two of 
Cleveland's outstanding individuals who are also the owners of the 
Malcolm Brown Gallery. To mark the occasion, I was proud to present Dr. 
Burke with a Congressional Proclamation in honor of her significant 
accomplishments. During her visit to Cleveland, this gifted artist 
spoke and told a fascinating story of how she began her career. Dr. 
Burke is an articulate and engaging speaker who held our attention to 
every word she spoke. Her appearance in Cleveland and other places was 
highlighted on the CBS Morning News. Thus, the Nation is now aware of 
the work of this great woman who says, ``I was born to be a sculptor.''
  Mr. Speaker, I believe that Dr. Selma Burke deserves special 
recognition for her continued efforts to foster a greater appreciation 
for the arts. I am pleased to share with my colleagues the Plain Dealer 
article which traces the phenomenal history of this great African-

                Sculptor, 93, Carving Artworks, Opinions

                            (By Steven Litt)

       Selma Burke, 93, has earned more honors in her long career 
     than many other 20th-century American artists. She first 
     garnered attention as a sculptor in the Harlem Renaissance, 
     the burst of art, music and literature by blacks in New York 
     during the 1920s and '30s. She later studied in Europe, 
     founded an art school in New York and an art center in 
     Pittsburgh, and was awarded nearly a dozen honorary degrees.
       But one thing eludes her. It is credit for the portrait of 
     Franklin D. Roosevelt that appears on the dime, which was 
     issued by the U.S. Mint in 1946.
       The dime bears the tiny initials ``JS,'' which stand for 
     John Sinnock, the former mint chief engraver who, according 
     to Burke, copied a bronze portrait plaque of Roosevelt 
     created by Burke in 1944 for the Recorder of Deeds Office in 
     Washington, D.C.
       ``I'm so mad at that man,'' she says of Sinnock.
       Officials at the mint say their records show Sinnock 
     deserves full credit for the Roosevelt dime. But Burke isn't 
     convinced. She says that because she is black, she will never 
     get the recognition she feels she deserves.
       ``This has happened to so many black people,'' she says. 
     ``I have never stopped fighting this man and have never had 
     anyone who cared enough to give me the credit.''
       It is a warm Friday afternoon in June, and Burke is musing 
     over her career while visiting the Malcolm Brown Gallery in 
     Shaker Heights, where a solo show of her work is on view 
     through July 31. The artists sits in a carved wooden chair in 
     the corner of the gallery, gazing at 15 stone and bronze 
     sculptures as if they were children she loves despite their 
       ``There are things you wished you had done differently, and 
     things you're glad you did,'' she says, wistfully.
       The 15 works on view include a plaster portrait bust of 
     Duke Ellington, a wood carving of a falling angel clutching a 
     snake to her chest, and a semi-abstract brass sculpture of a 
     nude female torso with liquid contours and highlights. The 
     work blends African-American subjects with a style rooted in 
     the academic realism of the Works Progress Administration 
     (WPA) Art Project, in which Burke took part. The FDR plaque 
     is not part of the show.
       As she speaks about her career, Burke oscillates between 
     grandmotherly warmth and righteous anger. But the artist is 
     not consumed in bitterness.
       She speaks rapturously about how she still works three 
     hours a day in her studio in Solebury Township, Pa., and 
     occasionally teaches classes of young schoolchildren in the 
       ``Oh, I love it!'' she says, ``I love carving wood and 
     stone.'' And she talks about how she finds peace attending a 
     local Quaker meeting because ``I like the silence.''
       Burke was born on Dec. 31, 1900, in Mooresville, N.C. 
     Despite an early interest in art, she followed her parents' 
     urgings that she became a nurse.
       It was in New York in the mid-1920s that the wealthy 
     heiress who employed Burke as a nurse encouraged her to take 
     lessons at the Art Student's League. Burke also worked as a 
     model for sculptor Paul Manship and photographers Edward 
     Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz.
       In 1935, she met the Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay, 
     whom she later married. On the eve of World II, Burke earned 
     fellowships that allowed her to travel in Europe, where she 
     studied with Henri Matisse and Aristide Maillol.
       In 1943, while working as a truck driver for the U.S. Navy 
     in a New York navy yard, Burke entered a competition to 
     sculpt a profile of Roosevelt for the Recorder of Deeds 
     office in Washington, DC. Burke tried for months to work from 
     photographs, but failed to find a precise profile of the 
     president. Finally, she wrote the president and requested a 
       To her surprise, Roosevelt agreed. During a 45-minute 
     sketching session in the White House on Feb. 22, 1944, the 
     loquacious commander in chief peppered the sculptor with so 
     many questions she couldn't concentrate. Finally, she grabbed 
     Roosevelt's head in both hands and said: ``Mr. President, 
     could you hold your head like this?'' Roosevelt stood still, 
     which allowed Burke to sketch his profile on a sheet of brown 
     supermarket paper. To her surprise, the president invited her 
     back the next day for a second session.
       A year later, Eleanor Roosevelt visited the artist's New 
     York studio to view the finished plaque, and told Burke, ``I 
     think you've made Franklin too young.''
       But the artist said: ``I didn't make it for today, I made 
     it for tomorrow and tomorrow. There's something of a Roman 
     gladiator in there, a strong ruler in a time of war.''
       Burke and some scholars believe that Sinnock used her 
     sketches and plaques to design the profile of Roosevelt that 
     appears on the dime.
       But Brenda Gatling, public information officer for the 
     mint, says ``both Ms. Burke and Sinnock did live sittings 
     with the president. Historical records do not bear out Ms. 
     Burke's statements that he copied her design. Those who could 
     have provided eyewitness accounts have long passed on.''
       But Burke isn't discouraged. ``Everybody knows I did it,'' 
     she says.