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Mon, 12.31.1900

Selma Burke, Artist born

Selma Burke

On this date, Selma Burke born in 1900. She was a Black sculptor.

From Mooresville, North Carolina, as a child she liked to whittle and model in clay but her mother insisted she get an education for a "career." She was educated at Slater Industrial and State Normal School, now Winston-Salem State University; St. Agnes School of Nursing, Raleigh; and Women's Medical College, Philadelphia.

In 1924, she moved to New York where she worked as a nurse; but art was her calling, and she continued to work as an artist.  Her accomplishments were so great that in 1935, she earned a Rosenwald Foundation Fellowship, and in 1936, a Boehler Foundation Fellowship.  Both awards allowed her to travel to Europe where she studied ceramics with Povoleny in Vienna and sculpture with Maillol in Paris.  Among the influences on her were the painter, Henri Matisse, and the architect, Frank Lloyd Wright.  Around 1940, she moved to Pittsburgh, PA.

She returned to New York and in 1941, completed a Master of Fine Arts degree at Columbia University.  At the age of 70, this remarkable Black woman completed a Doctorate in Arts and Letters at Livingstone College, Salisbury, North Carolina.

Dr. Burke was a remarkable sculptor and a dedicated teacher.  In 1943, she won the competition sponsored by the Fine Arts Commission for the District of Columbia.  In 1944, President Roosevelt posed for the artist and her completed bronze plaque was unveiled by President Harry S. Truman in 1945.  It can be seen at the Recorder of Deeds Building in Washington, D.C.; the image was also used on the American ten cent piece (dime).

Since the coin bears the initials of the engraver, John Sinnock, Selma Burke has never received proper credit for the portrait. Burke was a great lover and supporter of the Arts. In 1968, she was the founder of the Selma Burke Art Center in Pittsburgh.  At the age of 80, in 1980, Burke produced her last monumental work, a statue of Martin Luther King, Jr., that graces Marshall Park in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Burke was an honorary member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, a non-profit Greek-lettered sorority of college-educated women who perform public service and place emphasis on the African American community. She received many other awards and honors.  Dr. Burke's artistic works were not fully acknowledged during her life time. Her pieces can be viewed in the Metropolitan and Whitney museums. Selma Burke died in 1995.

To be an Artist


The Biographical Dictionary of Black Americans
by Rachel Krantz and Elizabeth A.Ryan
Copyright 1992, Facts on File, New York, NY
ISBN 0-8160-2324-7

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