Selma Hortense Burke (1900 -1995)

Selma Hortense Burke with her bust of Booker T. Washington, ca. 1935
Public Domain Image

Selma Hortense Burke was a nurse, a teacher, and an influential American artist.  Born in Mooresville, North Carolina, she was one of ten children born to Neal Burke, a Methodist minister and chef, and Mary Jackson Burke, a homemaker and teacher.  She attended high school at Slater Normal and Industrial School (later Winston Salem University) in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Although she was an aspiring artist, she decided that nursing was a more practical career path. She graduated from the St. Agnes Training School for Nurses in Raleigh and became a registered nurse in 1924.  She moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where she practiced nursing for several years, even enrolling in the Woman’s Medical College for additional training.

While Burke’s work in nursing had provided financial stability during the Great Depression, she remained interested in art and moved to New York to study sculpture in 1935. Through a second brief marriage to Claude McKay, she became associated with Harlem Renaissance writers and artists.  Working in Harlem for the Works Progress Administration and the Harlem Artists Guild, Burke began teaching art appreciation and education to New York youth.  She traveled across Europe studying and honing her skills as an artist under Aristide Maillol of Paris, France and Povolney of Vienna, Austria. In 1940, she opened the Selma Burke School of Sculpture in New York City and the following year graduated with a Master of Fine Arts from Columbia University.

In 1942, Burke joined the navy, making her one of the first African American women to enlist during World War II.  While in the navy, she drove a truck at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. In 1943, she learned about a national art competition to paint a portrait of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Burke won the competition, and the bronze relief portrait of  FDR is perhaps her most famous work. In fact, it may have been the model for the profile of the president on the dime.

In 1968, Burke founded the Selma Burke Art Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1968-1981), where she continued to introduce art to inner-city youth. She was widely lauded for her engagement in civic organizations and endeavors in the Pittsburgh area.  Pennsylvania governor Milton Shapp celebrated her by designating July 20, 1975 as Selma Burke Day.

Some of Burke’s notable sculptures include Temptation (1938), Despair (1951), Fallen Angel (1958), Mother and Child (1968), and Together (1975).  A nine-foot statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. that she completed while in 1980 is on display in Marshall Park in Charlotte, North Carolina.  She received numerous awards and honors, including honorary doctorates from Livingston College (1955), the University of North Carolina (1977), and Winston-Salem University (1979).  In 1979, President Jimmy Carter presented Burke with a lifetime achievement award from the Women’s Caucus for Art.

Selma Burke retired in the early 1980s. She died of cancer on August 29, 1995, in New Hope, Pennsylvania; she was ninety-four years old.  Her sculptures, many of which are on display at Winston-Salem State University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, remind viewers of her legacy to art history.