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Selma Burke And The Dime

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Standing beside the plaque of President Roosevelt she executed is sculptress Selma Burke, as the plaque was put on view for the first time at the Modernage Art Gallery in New York in 1945. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

If you’re still carrying filthy physical money around for some reason, you can see the initials of John Sinnock, the official engraver of President Roosevelt’s image, on the dime. By some accounts, however, the profile of Roosevelt was sculpted not by Sinnock but a Harlem Renaissance master named Selma Burke who never got the credit she deserved.

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Selma Burke

Born in North Carolina in 1900, Selma Burke demonstrated artistic talent at an early age when she used clay from a nearby riverbed to sculpt animals. She trained to be a registered nurse but never gave up her passion for art, fascinated especially by the African artifacts that her missionary uncles brought back from their travels. After a stint as a private nurse and the loss of her husband, Burke studied art at Sarah Lawrence College and then in Paris, but after the threat of World War II forced her to return to the United States, she earned a Master of Fine Arts from Columbia University. By 1943, Burke was known as one of the leading artists of the Harlem Renaissance movement in New York City, even opening the Selma Burke School of Sculpture.

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