BAIA BITS: Selma Burke


Little Moments Where Knowledge Meets Art


Time to drop a dime. The next time you hold a ten cent piece in your hand, take a closer look at the sculpted profile of America’s iconic 20th century leader, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Just below Roosevelt’s neck, you will see the initials “J.S.” for John Sinnock, the U.S. Mint’s Chief Engraver during Roosevelt’s 12-year tenure in office, credited with sculpting the profile of the 32nd president. While Sinnock was responsible for the ultimate look of the dime, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and many sources generally attribute the original 1946 image on the coin to a government-commissioned sculpture of Roosevelt by African American artist, Selma Burke.

By 1943—after making an artistic impact on the Harlem Renaissance and earning fellowships to study in Europe under French legends Henri Matisse and Aristide Maillol—Burke was back in New York assisting the war effort by driving trucks for the U.S. Navy. That year, the North Carolina native won a competition to sculpt a profile of President Roosevelt for the Recorder of Deeds office in Washington, D.C. For months, Burke tried to work from photographs but was unsuccessful, so she decided to write the president and request an in-person session.

Remarkably, Roosevelt agreed. Years later, in a 1993 story on Burke, the Cleveland Plain Dealer would recount this historic event from February 1944 in the following fashion:

“During a 45-minute sketching session in the White House, 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.”

Apparently, Burke had made an impression on Roosevelt. He was far from alone. Over a career stretching from the Harlem Renaissance to the late 20th century, the talented sculptor and educator impacted many. In the 1930s, she taught art to New York youth under mentor, Augusta Savage, through the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project and the Harlem Community Arts Center. In 1940, Burke opened the Selma Burke School of Sculpture and, a year later, earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from Columbia University. On September 24, 1945, five months after Roosevelt’s death, President Harry S. Truman unveiled Burke’s sculpted plaque of the late president at the Recorder of Deeds Building in Washington, D.C.

A lifetime advocate of art education, in 1968, Burke opened the Selma Burke Art Center in Pittsburgh, PA. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter awarded Burke with a Women’s Caucus for Art Lifetime Achievement award. In 1980, she completed a nine-foot bronze statue of Martin Luther King Jr. for Marshall Park in Charlotte, NC. Burke received honorary doctorates from Livingstone College and Spellman College, and her roster of sculpted figures included such prominent African Americans as King, A. Philip Randolph, Duke Ellington, and Mary McLeod Bethune.

Burke passed away in 1995 in New Hope, PA. Her bold and forward thinking spirit was further captured in that 1993 Cleveland Plain Dealer article. In 1945, First Lady 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.”

Burke’s response was legendary.

“I didn’t make it for today, I made it for tomorrow and tomorrow.”

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