As a public service in honor of Black History Month, I decided that I would do a series of posts about great African-Americans through history. Aren't I timely and informative? Don't say I never taught you anything.
My first subject is a woman who has fascinated me for some time, educator, civil rights and women's rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune.
I became a fan of Mary Bethune because of my peculiar obsession with Eleanor Roosevelt. Have I never mentioned my peculiar obsession with Eleanor Roosevelt? Well, I have one, but since Eleanor clearly doesn't fit into Black History Month, a post about her will have to wait. I have read quite a few books on Eleanor, and the story of her friendship with Mary Bethune is powerful and moving.
Mary McLeod was born in South Carolina in 1875, the fifteenth of seventeen children. Her parents were former slaves, but she descended on her mother's side from "royal African blood". She grew up working in the cotton fields, but was so brilliant and bold that she quickly excelled in school, and thanks to scholarships, and the mentoring of a loving and dynamic teacher, she eventually graduated with honors from the Scotia Seminary in 1894, and went on the attend the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, intending to prepare for a career as a missionary in Africa. Amazingly, the Presbyterian Mission Board refused to send a black missionary to Africa! So Mary became a teacher and missionary in her own country.
In 1889, Mary married Albertus Bethune, and they moved to Florida. They had a son, but Mary had no interest in staying home and raising children. I'm afraid Albertus resented her work, and they separated. He eventually died in 1918. In Daytona, Florida, she started her own school for black girls, the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute in 1904. Her school started with only 6 students, 5 girls and her son, Albert. They had to make pens using elderberry juice as ink, and pencils out of burned wood. But with help from donations from local black churches and Mary's persistent fundraising and courting of wealthy benefactors, the school grew into an outstanding institution on 20 acres of land. Daytona Normal became a college preparatory and teacher training school which emphasized "Self-control, self-respect, self-reliance and race pride." In 1929, the school merged with the Cookman Institute, a boys school, and Mary became the president of Bethune-Cookman College, one of the few women in the world who served as a college president at that time.
She was also a suffragist, and fought tirelessly for women's rights. In 1920, she organized a black women's voter-registration drive throughout Florida. She was an active member of the National Association of Colored Women, and in 1935 founded the National Council of Negro Women, which was an alliance of twenty-nine national organizations.
Apparently, she had tremendous personal charisma and charm. She always carried a cane with her, not because she needed it for support, but because she said it gave her "swank"! It was said that "She had the most marvelous gift of effecting feminine helplessness in order to attain her aims with masculine ruthlessness." Don't you love that!
Mary Bethune met Eleanor Roosevelt in 1927, when Eleanor was hosting a sit-down dinner in New York for the National Council of women. When Mary entered the room, she looked around, realized she was the only black woman in attendance, and hesitated. Eleanor's mother in law, the indominable Sara Delano Roosevelt saw her, and walked across the room:
"That grand old lady took my arm and seated me to the right of Eleanor Roosevelt in the seat of honor! I can remember, too, how the faces of the Negro servants lit up with pride when they saw me seated at the center of that imposing gathering...my friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt soon ripened into a close and understanding mutual feeling."
In 1934, during the early days of the New Deal, Eleanor became aware of the need of a presence in Washington that would make sure during the formulation of the WPA and other works programs, that the voice of black citizens was not ignored. She convinced Mary to come to Washington, where she became the leader of Roosevelt's unofficial "Black Cabinet", thus beginning yet another chapter in her life as a civil rights activist. It also began a true, lifelong friendship between the two great women. Eleanor R. often referred to Mary B. as "her closest friend in her age group."
Mary Bethune's first visit to the White House during the segregated 1930's became a legendary Washington story. The story goes that as she walked up the walk to the front entrance, a gardener shouted to her "Hey there, Auntie, where y'all think you're going?" Mrs. Bethune walked to the gardener, looked into his face for a long time, and said slowly "I don't recognize you. Which one of my sister's children are you?"
It worried Eleanor that her friend would be disrespected or embarrassed by the White House guards. So every time Mary was expected for a visit, Eleanor would wait just inside the door, and when she saw Mary headed up the walkway, she would run outside, give her friend a hug and kiss, take her arm and they would walk together into the White House.
I thought of Mary and Eleanor on the day of Barack Obama's inauguration. I thought of how happy it would make them to know that while in their day, the only way a black woman could walk through the front doors of the White House with dignity was on the arm of the white First Lady, now the First Lady herself is a black woman.
Mary Bethune's time in Washington was extremely productive. She earned the nickname the "First Lady of the Struggle". She fought for the rights of sharecroppers in the south, black union members in the north, fought discriminatory stores, supported anti-lynching legislation, protested the poll tax, fought for women's rights and for work and educational opportunities for black youth.
Mary McLeod Bethune died on May 18, 1955. Upon her death, the Washington Post stated "So great were her dynamism and force that it was almost impossible to resist her... Not only her own people, but all America has been enriched and ennobled by her courageous, ebullient spirit." The New York Times noted she was "one of the most potent factors in the growth of interracial goodwill in America."
In 1974, a statue of her was erected in Washington DC's Lincoln Park. Engraved in the side is the following passage from her last will and testament:
"I leave you love. I leave you hope. I leave you the challenge of developing confidence in one another. I leave you a thirst for education. I leave you a respect for the use of power. I leave you faith. I leave you racial dignity. I leave you a desire to live harmoniously with your fellow men. I leave you, finally, a responsibility to our young people."
And I leave you with Mary McLeod Bethune. Hope you learned something today.