March 2016, News & Features

SAU alumna had historic role in U.S. currency

To honor Women’s History Month in March, we present a profile of a famous SAU alumna.

Ready to play the Saint Aug’s version of Trivial Pursuit?

Who is the graduate who helped designed something almost every American above the age of 5 has owned? It is something that many people reading this article might have in their pocket. Go ahead and look. A hint: It is small and shiny.

As you try to find it, meet the answer to our question: Selma Burke, a multitalented woman who became one of Saint Augustine’s most prominent graduates.

Ms. Burke graduated from the St. Agnes Training School for Nurses in 1924, when that institution was still operating on campus. Growing up in Mooresville, NC, she always had a passion for art but, coming from a farming family of modest means, that was not seen as a viable career option for her. With encouragement from her mother, Ms. Burke decided to pursue a career in nursing.

After graduating from St. Agnes, she became a registered nurse in New York City. At the time, the “Harlem Renaissance” was underway, with black artists, authors and intellectuals leading a prolific era of contributions to American culture. The movement rekindled Ms. Burke’s love for art, and during the 1930s she traveled across Europe studying with artists in Paris and Vienna. In 1940 she opened the Selma Burke School of Sculpture in New York City and, in 1941, she earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from Columbia University.

In 1942, Ms. Burke joined the U.S. Navy, becoming one of the first African-American women to enroll in that branch of the military service. While in the Navy, she was commissioned to do a bronze relief portrait of then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The portrait she created is widely considered to be the inspiration for the profile of Roosevelt that appears on the dime.

The portrait honored the FDR’s Four Freedoms – freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom of worship, freedom of speech. The 3.5-by-2.5-foot plaque was unveiled in September 1945 at the Recorder of Deeds Building in Washington, D.C., where it still hangs today.

Ms. Burke is an honorary member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority. She received her second doctorate degree at Livingston College in 1970, and she received eight honorary doctorate degrees for her lifetime efforts. She died in 1995, at age of 94. But her legacy lives on, in the pockets and change drawers of every American.

— LaQuasia Jackson