Never Heard of Her: Selma Burke

Ever seen an American dime? If so, you’ve seen the work of Harlem Renaissance sculptor Selma Hortense Burke

Born and raised in Mooresville, North Carolina, Selma adored playing in wet clay as a child. The joy it sparked followed her all the way through nursing school and her big move to New York in 1924. But quite literally, she couldn’t keep her hands to herself. Sculpting as much as she could on the side, Selma developed a particular talent for historical figures and nudes, and by the 1930s, nursing was officially on the back burner. Her honed talent and teaching chops garnered fellowships, awards and eventually three honorary doctorate degrees.

“My mother was very proud of my achievements -- she felt I had delivered the Burkes from the cotton patch to the White House,” Selma said once.

Selma with President Truman, his bust and her flawless ensemble.

Selma with President Truman, his bust and her flawless ensemble.

After World War II, in which Selma became one of the first African-American women enlisted in the Navy, she won an ultra competitive District of Columbia Fine Arts Commission for a bronze plaque of FDR. In 1945, her presidential profile, which Eleanor considered too young-looking, was unveiled in Washington’s Recorder of Deeds Building (...which everyone’s heard of…?) in 1945.

Then, a year afterward an awfully familiar face appeared on the newly redesigned dime. It’s was Selma’s! Just kidding. It was FDR, looking exactly like the relief portrait Selma had finessed. Oddly enough, though, she never made any deal with U.S. Mint to mass produce her work on coinage. The U.S. Mint Chief Engraver at the time, John Sinnock, claimed the dime work was all his. Like so many dudes in Washington have done, ol' Johnny boy instead denied, denied, denied that the twinsies situation was anything more than a creative coincidence. But Selma was no fool.

“This has happened to so many black people,” she once said of the plagiarism.

Selma slaying all day in her studio. (Image: Smithsonian American Art Museum)

Selma slaying all day in her studio. (Image: Smithsonian American Art Museum)

Even though Selma didn't initially receive a dime's-worth of credit where it was due, her body of work spoke louder than any uncreative government engraver ever could. In 1975, the governor of Pennsylvania commemorated July 29 as Selma Burke Day in recognition of her investment in arts education through her eponymous art center in Pittsburgh. Then, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was the final sculpture of her career, which finally moonwalked away from in her 80s and kicked it through to 100 years old.

Ever heard of a John Sinnock Day anywhere? Didn’t think so.