We continue our presidential-themed Black History Month Wednesdays with Selma Burke – an amazing artist whose history has been all been ignored, despite her long trail of accomplishments. She was tasked to do a portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt for the Recorder of Deeds Building in Washington, D.C. after winning a Commission of Fine Arts competition. After finding photographs limiting, she reached out to the president to do a sit down in person. Art and Architecture critic, Steven Litt, describes the meeting:

To her surprise, Roosevelt agreed. During a 45-minute sketching session in the White House on Feb. 22, 1944, the loquacious commander in chief peppered the sculptor with so many questions she couldn’t concentrate. Finally, she grabbed Roosevelt’s head in both hands and said: “Mr. President, could you hold your head like this?” Roosevelt stood still, which allowed Burke to sketch his profile on a sheet of brown supermarket paper. To her surprise, the president invited her back the next day for a second session.

A year later, Eleanor Roosevelt visited the artist’s New York studio to view the finished plaque, and told Burke, “I think you’ve made Franklin too young.”

But the artist said: “I didn’t make it for today, I made it for tomorrow and tomorrow. There’s something of a Roman gladiator in there, a strong ruler in a time of war.”

The man credited for the FDR portrait on the dime, John Sinnock, repeatedly denied being influenced by Burke’s bas-relief sculpture, even though he did admit studying a couple of reliefs in preparing himself for the design. He died in 1947, leaving the question open-ended. It’s worth noting, however, that the Smithsonian, the National Archives, and one of FDR’s own sons give credit to Selma Burke for the portrait.

She would go on to start two different art schools, earn numerous numerous awards, and continue a lifelong career of bold sculpture.