Hidden Figures: Selma Burke


According to statistical information published by Canadian mathematicians Lara Pudwell and Eric Rowland, the average American currency carrier holds a single dime, in addition to other change, in their pocket at any given moment. On the obverse of the dime is the profile of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd President of the United States. The legacy of Selma Hortense Burke, the black artist who created the large scale sculpture featured in miniature on the dime, lives forever in the pockets of every individual carrying U.S. currency – maybe even you.

Selma was born on December 31, 1900, in Mooresville, NC. “It was there in 1907,” Selma said, on the day she touched clay found nearby her home for the first time, “that I discovered me.”

Though she remained artistically inclined, at the encouragement of her mother to find a steady economic source, Selma attended Winston-Salem State University, followed by schooling at St. Agnes Hospital Nursing School in Raleigh, NC. After the death of her husband, a childhood friend, Selma moved to New York City to continue her nursing career, until a new career began to take shape.

In the midst of the Harlem Renaissance, the cultural, intellectual and artistic movement that empowered black Americans and asserted the influence of black art on American culture during the early 20th century,  Ms. Burke arrived in New York. Burke’s artistic genius quickly became a key that opened a series of doors to the future. Living with acclaimed black author Claude McKay and forging relationships within the vibrant community of black creatives present in Harlem, Burke’s energy became concentrated towards her art.

During her time in Harlem, she won the Rosenwald and Boehler Foundation Fellowships, the former of which provided scholarship programs specifically for black artists and writers during the 1920s to late 1940s. Through this fellowship, Burke was under the tutelage of famed modernist sculptor Aristide Maillol; she also came in contact with renowned French painter Henri Matisse, who spoke with high esteem about Burke’s work. In 1941, Burke earned an M.F.A. from Columbia University, and lent her prowess to the next generation of Harlem artists by teaching at the local community center.

She also funded and established the Selma Burke Art School in New York City and the Selma Burke Art Center in Pittsburgh, PA. Burke’s ascent to fame came following her submission to a competition asking artists to sculpt President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Burke, who felt referencing photographs for her sculpture limited her ability to accurately capture the President’s visage, requested a 45-minute sitting with the President to draw sketches she would use in the creation of of 3.5 by 4.5 foot plaque.

Her work was quickly adapted on the dime after its reveal in September 1945 at the Recorder of Deeds Building in Washington, D.C. Former U.S. Mint Chief Engraver John R. Sinnock, who occupied the position when the dime carrying was minted, took credit for the image, and vehemently denied throughout his life any statements that suggested he stole Burke’s idea, dismissing them as ‘coincidence. Selma was cognizant of her predicament, as one of many African Americans whose genius went unacknowledged due to plagiarism.

“This has happened to so many black people,” Burke said about the issue. “I have never stopped fighting this man and have never had anyone who cared enough to give me the credit.” White inventors claiming the work of black creators as their own or diminishing their contribution was a continuous thread prior to that point in American history, especially common during the 17th and 18th century, when slavery prohibited black inventors from receiving patents.

Most scholars and museums recognize the clear influence of Burke’s design of the minted coin–and now you can, too.  Burke also made history by being one of the first black women to enlist in the Navy during World War II. In 1979, she was amongst the first group of women awarded the lifetime achievement award by the Women’s Caucus for Art, presented by President Jimmy Carter.

Burke received several art accolades throughout her life for her work that showcased black historical figures like Booker T. Washington, and dealt with themes of humanity, struggle, and storge, or familial love, in her popular works of “Falling Angel,” “Peace,” and “Mother and Child.” Burke’s final sculpture of Martin Luther King Jr. beautifies Marshall Park in Charlotte, NC. Selma Burke Day was issued by Pennsylvania governor Milton Shapp in 1979 to commemorate the life of one of America’s most long-lived artists.

Burke passed away in New Hope, PA on August 29, 1995. If you ever need any help remembering who she is, just fish out one of her pieces from your pocket.