The Selma Burke Nobody Knew

Most known for her bas relief portrait of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, this Harlem Renaissance icon wanted to ensure her legacy was never forgotten

Dr. Selma Hortense Burke was an American sculptor and a member of the Harlem Renaissance movement. She made magnificent moves as a Black woman in an era where women—especially those of color—didn’t have many opportunities. In fact, what Dr. Burke is best known for, a bas relief portrait of President Franklin D. Roosevelt that inspired the profile found on the obverse of the dime, wasn’t always credited to her. The initials “JS” situated on the small coin are the initials of former U.S. Mint’s Chief Engraver, John Sinnock, who took undue credit for the design. In a 1994 interview with journalist Steven Litt, Dr. Burke said, “This has happened to so many black people,” adding, “I have never stopped fighting this man and have never had anyone who cared enough to give me credit.”

When researching the Harlem Renaissance movement, Trenton artist, April Cooper, of Art by April, was shocked by what she learned. Dr. Burke’s story motivated Cooper to create a TikTok video illustrating the drama. “She was quiet about it, even though they wanted to ignore her,” Cooper said. “She became a successful artist even though all this happened to her.” However, it’s widely accepted that Sinnock’s design on the Roosevelt dime was adapted from Dr. Burke’s plaque.

Booker T. Jones Jr., who lives in the Greater Trenton Area in Ewing, New Jersey, is inspired to keep Dr. Burke’s legacy alive. A few years prior to her death, he befriended her and has extensive audio footage of the magnificent woman that has never been published before. Jones plans to make the interview available to the world by working with an institution interested in preserving Dr. Burke’s legacy.

Burke’s home in New Hope, Pennsylvania

Selma H. Burke, the artist

During her 70-year career, she’s created many pieces of public art including African American figures Duke Ellington, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Booker T. Washington.

She was awarded the Women’s Caucus for Art Lifetime Achievement Award in 1979, received from President Jimmy Carter in a private ceremony in the Oval Office.

She also received a Candace Award from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women in 1983, and the Pearl S. Buck Foundation Women’s Award in 1987.

She was born on December 31, 1900, in Mooresville, North Carolina to an African Methodist Episcopalian minister, Reverend Neil and his wife, Mary Elizabeth Colfield Burke. Selma was the seventh of 10 children and the last to survive. As a child, she attended a one-room segregated schoolhouse. She was drawn to sculpture early on and at age 5 when she began working in riverbank clay.

Dr. Burke attended Winston-Salem State University before graduating in 1924 from the St. Agnes Training School for Nurses in Raleigh, North Carolina.

In 1935 she received a Rosenwald Foundation Fellowship, and in 1936, a Boehler Foundation Fellowship to study abroad. After moving to New York City in 1935, she became involved with the Harlem Renaissance cultural movement and also studied drawing with Henri Matisse in Paris.

She founded the Selma Burke School of Art in New York in 1940 and earned her master’s degree from Columbia University in 1941. Throughout her academic career she taught on the faculties of Haverford, Livingstone, and Swathmore Colleges.

It was in 1945 that her plaque of Franklin D. Roosevelt was unveiled by President Harry Truman. It now hangs in Washington, D.C. at the Recorder of Deeds building and is on every dime minted since January 1946. Her marriage to architect Herman Kobbe in 1947 brought her to Bucks County, Pennsylvania. The studio Kobbe promised Burke became her life-long home.

At the age of 70, Dr. Burke earned her PhD in fine arts from Livingstone College. She founded the Bucks County Sculpture show in 1977. The Chamber of Commerce named her Ambassador of Bucks County in 1979. Her own scholarship fund financed young artists for generations. In 1993 she was named a Distinguished Daughter of Pennsylvania, taking her place next to Grace Kelly, Teresa Heinz, and Pearl S. Buck.

Dr. Selma H. Burke died on August 29, 1995 in Newton, Pennsylvania at the age of 94.

Pictured above: Dr. Selma Burke and Booker in 1993, courtesy of Booker T. Jones

Booker T. Jones Jr., Photographer and Friend

Booker T. Jones, Jr. was 50 years her junior. Their first meeting was arranged by Monica McGoldrick, who was Jones’ therapist at the time. McGoldrick realized Dr. Burke might be an interest as Jones is a Black history enthusiast and had an affinity for taking care of senior citizens. Jones graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering after spending 22 months in Vietnam. He also had an interest in photography at the time he met Dr. Burke.

The Connection

Prior to meeting Dr. Burke, Jones said he didn’t know much about her except that she created the image of President Franklin Roosevelt on the dime. He went with a camera and a tape recorder when he visited her home in New Hope, Pennsylvania, and recorded two 90-minute interviews.

What prompted Jones to record the interviews was that he sensed he was in the presence of a historian. Jones also noted that during Burke’s final years, she wanted to make sure her legacy was remembered. “She was flattered that I wanted to preserve whatever she personally wanted to relate to me,” he said.

“We hit it off right away,” said Jones. “She was sweet and serious-minded. And she could be funny. At 93, her faculties seemed to be there. She had a great recollection. It was like me sitting down with my grandmother, just telling me things. This is the way it happened. It was very intimate conversations. She wanted people to know about her life and it was just, ‘Keep your mouth shut and listen.’ She was a good storyteller. Her tagline was something her father instilled in her about difficulties—“You have to do all you can do, and the then-some. That’s going to get you where you want to go.” ‘And then-some’ was the fighting spirit in Selma.

During the short time of their friendship, Jones and Burke did plenty together. They would sit by the fireplace and go through Burke’s boxes of lifetime things, nothing too sentimental, basically a “catch-all drawer.” Whatever she didn’t want, she would throw into the fireplace such as junk mail and old PSEG notices.

They also enjoyed going to Burke’s favorite restaurants in New Hope. “We were personal,” said Jones. “It was just a wonderful time, and I’m honored to [have been] like her son to her.” Another time, Burke invited Jones to a show she was having at the Educational Testing Center in Princeton. While there, Jones captured photos of Burke alongside a few of her supporters. The pair had grown so close that Jones would also accompany Burke to visit her younger sister Geneva in Pennsylvania while she was in a nursing home. When Geneva passed, Jones sang “Nearer My God to Thee” at her funeral.

Sadly, Jones sang the same song at Dr. Selma H. Burke’s funeral shortly afterwards in 1995. Burke, who was diabetic and had already lost a leg, was diagnosed with cancer, resulting in her death at 94 years old. “I felt a sense of loss,” said Jones, who also noted that the funeral was a dignified and somber affair.

The memorial was held at the Pearl S. Buck Estate, in Bucks County, PA. Pearl S. Buck, author of “The Good Earth,” was good friends with Burke before Buck’s death in 1973.

Burke even had a sculpture called “Uplift” she dedicated to Pearl S. Buck in 1991, that is still on the grounds today.

“People were reflecting on their encounters with Selma,” Jones recalled of the memorial. “She meant a lot to dignitaries as well as regular family.”

Dr. Selma Hortense Burke’s achievements as an artist, teacher, and humanitarian will forever live on. “Selma was proud of her life’s accomplishments,” said Jones, “the many people who came in and out of her life, and this young Black man that came, sat at her feet, and listened to all she had to say.”

Interview with Dr. Selma Burke 25 Years Ago

Here is a never-heard-before interview with Dr. Selma Burke recorded over 25-years ago by Trenton Area Man, Booker T. Jones, click the link to listen to the audio.

Listen to Interview

Pictured above: Dr. Selma Burke, courtesy of Booker T. Jones

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