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Norman Pendergraft hadn’t given much, if any, thought to the origins of the artwork on the Roosevelt dime when, in 1977, he hopped on a bus to a small farm

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Norman Pendergraft hadn’t given much, if any, thought to the origins of the artwork on the Roosevelt dime when, in 1977, he hopped on a bus to a small farm

Artist Selma Burke’s 1943 Presidential Portrait Might’ve Inspired Dime Design

Norman Pendergraft hadn’t given much, if any, thought to the origins of the artwork on the Roosevelt dime when, in 1977, he hopped on a bus to a small farm in the rolling hills of Bucks County, Pennsylvania. He’d recently been tapped to oversee the new art museum on the campus of North Carolina Central University in Durham, where he had been teaching art for a decade. Pendergraft was white, and when he’d first been asked to teach a course on black art, he felt like he needed to start his education all over again. What he knew about art had come from a largely white perspective. In that worldview, black art barely existed.

He was traveling to Pennsylvania to visit the North Carolina-born artist Selma Burke, who was in her late 70s at the time but still a prolific sculptor. One of her wooden pieces had caught Pendergraft’s eye, and he wanted to add it to the museum’s collection before it opened. Burke had created the sculpture after Hurricane Hazel knocked down a pear tree on her farm in 1954. The grain and structure of the wood fascinated her, and she cut, whittled, and chiseled it into the form of an angel descending from heaven to help mankind fight against evil. Mesmerized by the sculpture, called Falling Angel, Pendergraft was looking to buy a bronze cast of it for the museum.

After he and Burke struck a deal for the piece, the two got to talking. Burke told him that she’d been married several times but had no children, and she seemed to like her most recent husband the best. She talked about skinny dipping with him in the stream that ran across her property. She talked about the barn that she’d converted into a home and study. She was kind, soft-spoken, and loved to tell stories. Like about the time, in 1943, when she visited the White House wearing a flamboyant hat full of fruit, Carmen Miranda-style. One of her brothers was aghast — You’re going to meet the president wearing THAT? — but when Franklin D. Roosevelt saw Burke’s hat, he loved it, and the two spent more than an hour talking, far beyond the time that she had been allotted.

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The anecdote intrigued Pendergraft. Burke had smiled a lot while telling her other tales, and she hadn’t had anything bad to say about anyone, including her ex-husbands. But this story was different. It was more complicated. Burke had gone to the White House because she’d won a national contest to do a bas-relief sculpture of Roosevelt. She’d been told that she would have to create the sculpture from pictures. But to do it right, Burke said that she needed to have the president sit for a portrait. And so, a full two decades before the civil rights movement gained steam, a white president sat for a black artist.

When Roosevelt saw Burke’s hat, he loved it, and the two spent more than an hour talking.

Burke’s portrait wasn’t an image of how Roosevelt looked at the time: aged, in ill health, and in the waning years of his life. Instead, she depicted a younger, more vigorous man. This caught the eye of Roosevelt’s wife, Eleanor, who thought Burke had made the president look too young. But Burke refused to budge. “I made it for tomorrow and tomorrow,” she said. “I don’t want people to feel something about a wrinkled old man. I want to give the feeling of a strong Roman gladiator that we could feel was strong and would lead our country.” Roosevelt never saw the finished work. He died before the final bronze plaque, entitled Four Freedoms, was unveiled in 1945 at the new Recorder of Deeds building in Washington, D.C. At the ceremony, the new president, Harry Truman, stood with Burke next to the sculpture.

Roosevelt had been a founder of what became the March of Dimes, and in the immediate aftermath of his death, the government moved to put his likeness on the dime. The chief engraver of the U.S. Mint set out to create an image of Roosevelt in profile to replace the picture of Mercury that had been on the coin since 1916. By 1946, the design had been approved, and it’s been on the dime ever since. If you look closely, there’s a tiny “JS” underneath Roosevelt’s neck. They are the initials of the engraver, John Sinnock, the man officially credited with creating the portrait. But during Pendergraft’s meeting with Burke in 1977, he could tell that she was certain, emphatic even, that this last part of the story was wrong.

That image, she told him, was hers.

At the top of Selma Burke’s bronze plaque portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt are the “essential freedoms” that the president spoke of in his “Four Freedoms” speech on January 6, 1941.

• • •

In Mooresville, the town where Burke was born and spent her early years, there are several clues to her life there. In a display case at the public library is her bust of a local doctor, along with some old pictures and typewritten captions. Over on Agape Drive, two miles north, the Selma Burke Community Center is used mostly for meetings and after-school camps. An Our Towns Habitat for Humanity housing development is named for her — Burke Crossings — and its sign once included a picture of a dime, a nod to something that other biographies and news stories state more directly: that Selma Burke created the image of Roosevelt on the 10-cent piece.

Except, maybe she didn’t. For years, the people who have said, without qualification, that Burke’s design is the one on the dime have been at odds with other people, many from the coin-collector community, who contend that there is no hard evidence proving it. Which often leads to claims that the official engraver for the U.S. Mint adapted Burke’s work without crediting her. Which, in turn, leads to assertions that the engraver didn’t need to use Burke’s work. It’s an endless loop of an argument, one that’s been waiting, fruitlessly, for a new piece of evidence to emerge to prove one side correct. But that evidence doesn’t seem to exist, at least not in Mooresville, a town Burke left in her 20s. “She was so private,” says Andy Poore, the curator of the local library’s special collections. “Her life outside of Mooresville stayed outside of Mooresville.”

Those early years in North Carolina were pivotal to the artist that Burke became. Around age 5, she would sculpt animals using clay she scooped from the creek behind the home she shared with her parents and nine siblings. Her mother worried that being an artist wouldn’t pan out, so she encouraged her daughter to enroll in St. Agnes Training School for Nurses at what was then St. Augustine’s Junior College in Raleigh. After completing the program, Burke returned to the area and became the first black registered nurse in Mecklenburg County.

“There have always been black artists creating their way out. That gives me hope.”

But then she moved to Philadelphia and, later, New York City, where she kept sculpting while working as a private nurse. She went on to study art at Columbia University and Sarah Lawrence College, eventually earning a doctorate. She became swept up in the Harlem Renaissance and briefly married an influential poet in that movement, Claude McKay. In 1943, while working at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, she entered the contest that would lead her to the White House and to the story that she told Pendergraft in 1977. After sculpting her portrait of Roosevelt, Burke remained an active artist and teacher, and was one of several women invited to the Carter White House for an award in 1979.

Burke was joined by President Harry Truman (left) and Recorder of Deeds Marshall Shepard at the September 1945 unveiling of her FDR plaque. Roosevelt had died less than six months earlier.

But, the dime: Burke later said that, in 1945, she’d received a strange phone call in the middle of the night. It was Ruth Wilson, a secretary at the Recorder of Deeds office where Burke’s Roosevelt plaque was on display. Wilson told Burke that John Sinnock, the mint’s chief engraver, had come to look at her plaque not long after its unveiling, and that he had taken at least one of her drawings to the mint. In an interview, Sinnock himself said that he’d consulted the works of several artists, as well as photographs and life studies that he’d made of Roosevelt in the 1930s. The image that Sinnock ultimately created depicted a slightly older Roosevelt than the one on Burke’s plaque. But Sinnock didn’t get much time to defend himself. He died in 1947, just a year after the dime was released.

Burke, however, stated adamantly, from then until her death in 1995, that the design was hers. “I’m so mad at that man,” she said of Sinnock during an interview in 1994. “This has happened to so many black people.” The U.S. Mint has said that the historical record supports Sinnock’s claim, and that anyone who might be able to say otherwise has long since died. Still, Burke remained adamant: “Everybody knows I did it.”

Over time, many articles, websites, and other news sources dropped any nuance. A 1975 headline in the Raleigh Times read, “She sculpted profile on FDR dime.” A biography in Mooresville explains that Burke wasn’t given credit because only employees of the U.S. Mint can officially create pieces of currency. The Smithsonian American Art Museum states that Burke’s sculpture “inspired” the dime.

In 1993, Robert Van Ryzin, a writer for the coin-collecting magazine Numismatic News, set out to investigate. He traveled to meet Burke at her home, and she laid out her story. He then went looking for documents and interviews to research her statements. “I believe she believed sincerely that the dime was her design,” Van Ryzin says. “But there’s just no way you can prove that.”

In some ways, it doesn’t matter. Monét Noelle Marshall is a performing artist and theater director in Durham who’s been inspired by Burke. “Even if we can never prove that this actually was Burke’s image, the fact that this black woman has been able to create immortality for herself because of her art-making is so profound,” Marshall says. “She was able to get this president to sit for her. She made herself a player through her art and left little Mooresville, North Carolina. And somehow, by the end of her life, she is connected to the dime.”

For Marshall, Burke’s story is a reminder that the image of the confident young black female artist is hardly a new phenomenon. “There have always been black artists creating their way out and imagining a new world,” Marshall says. “If nothing else, that gives me hope for what I can achieve.”

Regardless of whether Burke’s sculpture is the image on the dime, generations of artists — including performer Monét Noelle Marshall — have been inspired by Burke’s resolve.

• • •

Now 85, Pendergraft, the man who met with Burke back in the 1970s, is standing next to the sculpture he helped bring to North Carolina Central four decades ago, a piece that’s still located in the center of the art museum on the edge of campus.

“She was something else,” he says, a slight smile on his face. “Here was an African-American woman, in the ’40s, going to the White House to draw and sculpt the president of the United States.” But the dime, Pendergraft says, is just a small part of her story: “She created many things. I wish we could focus on those a little more.”

The bas relief that Burke sculpted is thought to remain in Washington, D.C., and Pendergraft makes a sheepish admission. “I’ve never seen it,” he says. “I’m embarrassed to say that, but it’s the truth. I should go to Washington just to see it.”

As it turns out, that’s not so easy: In 2008, the Recorder of Deeds moved its offices, and the building that it once inhabited has been locked ever since. The windows are dirty. The city limits access to it. Nobody can say for sure whether Burke’s plaque is still affixed to the wall. Yet another potential piece of evidence that’s just out of reach.

This story was published on Jan 27, 2020

Jeremy Markovich

Jeremy Markovich is a former Our State editor, and is currently the communications director for the Program for Leadership and Character at Wake Forest University. Find his newsletter, North Carolina Rabbit Hole, at ncrabbithole.com.