It may only be February, but I think it’s safe to say black women are WINNING in 2018. Whispers of California Senator Kamala Harris’ run for the White House in 2020 are already being met with hallelujahs, black actresses, writers, directors and producers are forcing Hollywood to confront its role in the degradation of black women in film; and let’s not forget about how black women swooped in and saved Alabama from Roy Moore. Like I said – winning. But here’s the thing – black women have been winning for a LONG time. Before Shirley Chisolm, Rosa Parks, Hattie McDaniel, Oprah, and so many other black (s)heroes, there was Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, one of the most influential African American women in U.S. history.
Bethune was born in Mayesville, South Carolina in 1875 . She was the fifteenth of 17 children. Imagine that. Her parents had been enslaved and Bethune’s father, in order to marry her mother, had to PURCHASE her from a nearby plantation. Bethune was the first in her family to be born free; she was also the first in her family to attend school at seven years old. Don’t let that statement miss you. You have to remember the times Mary and her family were living in. This was on the heels of the Reconstruction period (1865-1877) and although black folks had technically been emancipated, they certainly weren’t free. In fact, both Bethune’s mother and father continued to work for their former owners after the Civil War ended. Many white southerners were bitter about having to forfeit their property, (i.e., living, breathing, human beings) and weren’t eager to see black folks educated. The vast majority of slaves were illiterate. See, many slave owners forbid the enslaved to read, and learning in secret could easily cost them their lives. So, when a mission school was established in Mayesville by a black educator, Emma Wilson, in 1882, it was a big deal Mary’s parents had allowed her to attend.
Even as a little girl, Mary was smart and determined. She made the five-mile trek to the mission school for four years, bringing everything she’d learned back to her parents and siblings. Bethune excelled academically, and eventually went on to attend Moody Theological Institute, in Chicago. After graduation, she’d had high hopes of travelling to Africa as a missionary, but black women couldn’t just be missionaries in the 1900’s – not in America. She was disappointed, and no doubt angry, but she reasoned Americans needed Jesus just as badly as Africans did. So, in 1904 with a $1.50 and a whole lot of faith, Bethune opened the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls, a parochial, nondenominational boarding school, which would later become Bethune-Cookman University, in Daytona Beach Florida. Bethune’s was the only school for black girls in the area and It quickly became apparent she’d need to expand if she was to continue to educate her people. She was a resourceful business woman and although her coins were scarce, she had friends with money, power and influence. Among her supporters were James Gamble (Proctor & Gamble Family), John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and Madam CJ Walker. Of course, not everyone was excited about black folks being educated, advancing in society and teaching their youth about the many accomplishments of black people world-wide. Of course not. But when the Ku Klux Klan began making threats on her life, Mary was not deterred. In fact, she seemed more determined than ever to fight for equality.
Bethune wasn’t only an educator, she was also a social activist, bent on disrupting a prevailing system of inequality and blatant disregard for black lives. Understand, the fight for equality, for dignity and respect, had been going on long before Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 – true story. Mary was tired, like many black folks in the South, of being treated like she was still on the plantation, bound by laws which kept her people subservient, while at the same time providing protection for whites, who routinely harassed, beat, maimed and even killed black men, women and children over any number of offenses. Hadn’t she been born free? Hadn’t her parents purchased all fourteen of her older siblings? In 1920, after women had just won the right to vote, Bethune organized a voter registration campaign, a “Rock the Vote” of her era, if you will, which helped Daytona Beach open its first public high school for black students. She didn’t stop there. Bethune went on to lobby for antilynching laws, prison reform and equal rights under the constitution. She was marching for civil rights more than a quarter century before the bus boycotts of Alabama.
Bethune was a natural leader. She’d been the founder and president of a number of organizations, aimed at uplifting and educating black women, and established the National Council of Negro Women, still in existence, in 1935. The council’s goal was to unify various groups and ensure their opinions, values and ideals were consistent . That same year, she was appointed by Franklin D. Roosevelt to oversee the National Youth Administration, an agency established under Roosevelt’s New Deal, designed to help young people in the black community find employment through relief work and job-training programs. Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune was the first black woman to oversee a federal agency.
We hear a lot about “influencers” these days and we usually associate them with social media. You know them by their pages; they usually have tons of followers, and A MILLION comments on even the most mundane posts. But in the early 1900’s, who would have dreamed we’d have the ability to reach people around the globe, sharing our thoughts while impacting theirs. Yet, that’s exactly what Mary did over the span of her lifetime. She mastered the art of persuasion and changed the course of history for generations of black folks in the process. In 1927, Pope Pius XI hosted her at the Vatican; in 1949, the people of Haiti awarded Bethune the Medal of Honor and Merit, Haiti’s highest distinction; she was given unprecedented access to the White House, advising on race relations under Presidents Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover; and she wrote for the Washington Post. That’s influence. We can also thank Bethune for the work she did with Planned Parenthood, the American Red Cross, the N.A.A.C.P, and Tuskegee Institute, where she was instrumental in establishing the famed aviation program for black pilots during WWII. Her effect spread far and wide. After Bethune’s death, May 18, 1955, there were so many people who came to pay their respects, Daytona Beach officials, for the first time, ignored laws banning blacks and whites from lodging in the same location, and integrated hotels for out-of-towners in attendance.
February is Black History Month. But let’s not limit our learning about African American achievements to the shortest month of the year. Instead, let’s honor Bethune’s legacy by educating ourselves and others, remembering nearly every modern accomplishment made by African-Americans can be linked to the work she did on our behalf. You many not learn these lessons in the classroom – be encouraged to seek them out anyhow. Dr. Bethune’s faith, and her many contributions to society, have made America better.