Selma Hortense Burke was born December 31, 1900, in Mooresville, North Carolina. She was one of 10 children born to Neal Burke and Mary Jackson Burke. Her father was a local Methodist minister. Young Selma grew up in a strict, religious household.
After high school, Burke attended Winston Salem University. After earning her B.A., she then studied to become a nurse at the St. Agnes Training School for Nurses. She graduated with her credentials in 1924. She then moved to New York City, New York. There, she worked as a private nurse.
While living in New York, Burke embarked upon her artistic career. She married Claude McKay and became associated with the Harlem Renaissance. As a member of the Works Progress Administration and the Harlem Artists Guild, Burke taught art appreciation to New York youth. Throughout the 1930s, she traveled across Europe where she honed her skills as an artist.
Selma Burke School
Upon her return to New York, Burke established the Selma Burke School of Sculpture. In 1941, she earned her M.F.A. from Columbia University. The following year, she joined the Navy. She made history as the first Black woman to enlist in the Navy. While serving, she was commissioned to sculpt a bronze portrait of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Her sculpture now serves as the image of FDR that we currently see on the U.S. dime.
Selma Burke Art Center
In 1968, Burke established the Selma Burke Art Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. There, she taught inner-city youth about art history. As a result of her philanthropy in Pittsburgh, the Governor of Pennsylvania later established July 20 as Selma Burke Day. Pittsburgh has observed Selma Burke Day since 1975.
Burke created works of art from the 1930s until she was in her 80s. One of her final sculptures was a nine-foot depiction of Martin Luther King, Jr., which stands in Marshall Park in Charlotte, North Carolina. Selma Burke died August 29, 1995, at the age of 94. Her art is on display in North Carolina as a reminder of the contributions she made to Black art history.
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