Black History Trailblazers and Changemakers 2020--Day 8: Selma Burke
Feb 09, 2020
I’m celebrating Black History Month by looking for changemakers and trailblazers. #BlackHistoryMonth
DAY 8--Selma Burke (December 31, 1900-August 29, 1995) was a sculptor and art educator whose name you may not immediately recognize, but you’ll recognize the design of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the Roosevelt dime. The image on that dime is widely accepted to have been adapted by John R. Sinnock from Burke’s plaque of Roosevelt. Sinnock was the eighth chief engraver of the United States Mint from 1925 to 1947. He later denied that her portrait was an influence.
While recuperating from an accident while driving a truck for Brooklyn Navy Yard, Burke decided to enter a national contest to win a commission to create a profile of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. She received the commission in 1943, but when she considered two-dimensional sources inadequate for the task, she wrote to President Roosevelt asking for a live sitting. He agreed, and granted her two sittings, the first of which was on February 22, 1944. During a 45-minute sitting she made sketches that she used to create a 3.5 x 2.5-foot plaque that was completed in 1944 and unveiled by President Harry S. Truman in September 1945 at the Recorder of Deeds Building in Washington, D.C. where it still hangs.
Burke's work includes portraits of other notables such as Mary McLeod Bethune, Booker T. Washington, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. She founded the Selma Burke School of Sculpture in New York in 1940 and operated the Selma Burke Art Center in Pittsburgh from the early 1970s until 1981. She received numerous awards and honorary degrees until the end of her life at age 94.