Selma Hortense Burke was born on December 31, 1900 in North Carolina. As a child she liked to whittle and model in clay but her mother insisted she get an education for a “career.” Selma studied nursing and accomplished the credentials to become a registered nurse.
In 1924, she moved to New York and worked as a nurse. Since art was her calling, she pursued work as an artist. Her accomplishments were so great that in 1935, she earned a Rosenwald Foundation Fellowship, and in 1936, a Boehler Foundation Fellowship. Both awards allowed her to travel to Europe where she studied ceramics and sculpture.
She returned to New York and in 1941 completed a Master of Fine Arts degree at Columbia University. In 1944, President Roosevelt posed for the artist. Her completed bronze plaque was unveiled by President Harry S. Truman in 1945. It can be seen at the Recorder of Deeds Building in Washington, D.C. The image was also used on the American ten cent piece (dime).
Since the coin bears the initials of the engraver, John Sinnock, Selma Burke has never received proper credit for the portrait. At the age of 70, this remarkable woman completed a Doctorate in Arts and Letters at Livingstone College, Salisbury, North Carolina.