© 2021 WFAE
90.7 Charlotte 93.7 Southern Pines 90.3 Hickory 106.1 Laurinburg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Local News

Did Local African American Artist Design The Dime?

dime_and_sculpture.jpg
The dime and the relief sculpture made by Selma Burke.

You might look at the dime as a coin, but it’s also a piece of art. Since 1946, the dime has featured a portrait of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and if you look online for the artist who created it, the name of a black woman from Mooresville keeps coming up. As part of WFAE's partnership with Our State magazine, Jeremy Markovich takes a closer look at Dr. Selma Burke and the dime: an inspirational story with some facts that have been hard to prove.

Dr. Selma Burke and her sculpture of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Dr. Selma Burke and her sculpture of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

A search for clues started off in Mooresville, where a few traces of Selma Burke remain. There is no Selma Burke Drive but there’s a Selma Drive that intersects with Burke Circle. And there is a Burke Crossings and it’s a Habitat for Humanity community, it looks like.

There’s also the Selma Burke Community Center, and the Mooresville Public Library has one of her sculptures.

"Dr. Burke was a native of Mooresville. Her father was a minister at the AME Zion church here and she grew up here. She's born in 1900 and she actually grew up in the Cascade area, which is a mill  just out on the town limits. She always loved art," said Andy Poore, the library’s curator of special collections.

Selma Burke went on to study nursing at Winston Salem state, and became the first registered black nurse in Mecklenburg County.
 
But then, she left the area and studied at Columbia and Sara Lawrence College. She became part of an art movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. In 1942, she became one of the first black women to join the Navy. She was married several times but never had any children, and spent the later part of her life on a farm in Pennsylvania, where she died in 1995. All of that means, at least in Mooresville, there isn’t really much of Selma Burke left behind.
The museum does have an old home video of Burke from the 1990s. And in it, Burke tells the story that would be connected to her for the rest of her life.

In the 1940s, Burke enterer a contest to create a sculpture of President Roosevelt. There were 12 entrants, three black, and nine white. 

She won.

Burke created a relief sculpture of the president out of bronze, one that shows his profile, and depicts him as a younger man. That sculpture was supposed to hang on a wall in a government building in Washington, DC, but before it could be unveiled Roosevelt is died. 

On Sept. 25th, 1945, Burke and President Truman unveiled the FDR plaque. 

Is that sculpture what we see on our dime?