Selma Hortense Burke was born December 31, 1900, in Mooresville, North Carolina, the seventh of ten children born to Neal Burke and Mary Jackson Burke Cofield. Burke’s artistic interest was in part fostered by her grandmother who had been an artist, but also by her father, who, in addition to being a railroad brakeman and African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Zion minister, was a chef aboard several oceangoing ships. He acquired numerous artifacts throughout his travels to the Caribbean, Africa, South America, and Europe. Two of her paternal uncles collected carvings and other religious artifacts while performing missionary work in Africa. When they died in 1913, Selma’s family received their effects, and the African artwork became part of Selma’s world.
Mary Burke’s grandfather, Samuel S. Jackson, had been owned by Stonewall Jackson. According to Burke in a 1990 interview with an editor from Notable Black American Women, he “exchanged his chains for an education” by earning his degree from Berea College in Berea, Kentucky. Mary’s grandmother also probably received an education since she was reportedly owned by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Mary Burke, who wanted all of her children to be professionally trained, entered college herself at Winston-Salem State University at the age of 75. Education was of the utmost importance to the entire Burke family, and Selma felt intensely proud of all her family members who completed college. Selma’s mother decided that her daughter should become
That’s right. The image of former President Franklin D. Roosevelt you see on the common American dime was adapted from a sculpture commissioned by African-American sculptor, Selma Hortense Burke.