Born on December 31, 1900, in Mooresville, North Carolina, Selma Hortense Burke was the seventh of ten children born to Reverend Neil and Mary Elizabeth Burke. Her mother stayed at home to rear their family. Her father, who was a minister, often worked on the railroad as well as a chef aboard ships that traveled to the Caribbean, Europe, South American and, significantly, Africa.
While her father acquired artifacts from his international travels, it was those pieces from Africa, coupled with carvings and art curated from his brothers during their missionary work in Africa, that decorated the Burke home. When her uncles passed in 1913, her father inherited their collections and African arts would greatly inform and inspire Selma.
Selma, fascinated with the artwork and ritual objects of Africa and other sculptural pieces, was talented in creating sculptures. She often shaped figures from the white clay that could be found in the riverbeds near her home and from the dirt on her parents’ farm. In African American Art and Artists, Samella Lewis recorded that Selma stated, “It was there in 1907 that I discovered me.” Burke further expounded on her sentiment when she said in Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, “I shaped my destiny early with the clay of North Carolina rivers … I loved to make the whitewash for my mother and was excited at the imprints of clay and the malleability of the material.”