Mary McLeod Bethune challenged racial barriers, inspired youth

By Murphy Browne Thursday July 10 2014 in Opinion
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By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)

 

I leave you finally a responsibility to our young people. The world around us really belongs to youth for youth will take over its future management. Our children must never lose their zeal for building a better world. They must not be discouraged from aspiring toward greatness, for they are to be the leaders of tomorrow. Nor must they forget that the masses of our people are still underprivileged, ill-housed, impoverished and victimized by discrimination. We have a powerful potential in our youth, and we must have the courage to change old ideas and practices so that we may direct their power toward good ends.

 

Excerpt from “My Last Will and Testament,” by Mary McLeod Bethune (July 10, 1875 – May 18, 1955).

 

Mary McLeod Bethune’s “Last Will and Testament” was fittingly published in Ebony Magazine, the preeminent African-American magazine. The article published in the November 1973 edition of Ebony paid tribute to the life led by this extraordinary African-American educator and civil rights activist. So great is her legacy that it is hardly possible to read about Mayesville, South Carolina without the name Mary McLeod Bethune appearing.

 

Mary McLeod Bethune was born Mary Jane McLeod on July 10, 1875 in Mayesville, South Carolina. She was the 15th of 17 children born to Samuel and Patsy (McIntosh) McLeod. Her parents had been enslaved Africans and she was the first child in her family who was born after the emancipation (1865) of Africans in the USA. Some of her siblings had been sold by the McLeod family that “owned” them.

 

After the abolition of slavery, Samuel and Patsy McLeod were able to retrieve their children from the various plantations where they had been sold. The African-American McLeods eventually bought five acres of land where they built a home and raised their family of 17 children.

 

Patsy McLeod continued working for the White McLeod family who had been their former owners doing the same work she had done as an enslaved woman (African women could only work as maids or other similar work they had done during their enslavement) while Samuel McLeod cultivated cotton on the five acres of land the family then owned.

 

The 17 McLeod children also worked on the family’s land but Mary Jane McLeod wanted an education, something that most African-Americans could not afford. When she was 11 years old she was allowed to attend the one room school for Africans in Mayesville. She was an eager and brilliant student who impressed her teacher and she earned a scholarship to attend Scotia Seminary (now Barber-Scotia College) in Concord, North Carolina.

 

After graduating from Scotia Seminary, McLeod was awarded a scholarship to attend the Bible Institute for Home and Foreign Missions (now Moody Bible Institute) in Chicago, Illinois. After graduating from the Bible Institute in 1895, she planned to go to Africa, the land of her ancestors, to minister to the spiritual and educational needs of her people on the continent. That plan came to naught when she learned that the Presbyterian Mission Board would not assign an African-American to teach in Africa.

 

She was disappointed but undaunted by the fact that her dream of becoming a missionary in Africa was not realized. Taking that in stride, she instead went back to Mayesville to begin her teaching career. She also taught at Augusta, Georgia and at Sumter, South Carolina.

 

While teaching at Savannah, Georgia in 1898, she met and married Albertus Bethune and had a son, Albert, a year later. In 1904 she moved to Daytona, Florida where she established an elementary school for African-American girls. The school opened with five students on October 4, 1904.

 

She had deposited five dollars as a down payment on a property for which the asking price was 250 dollars. Over several years the institute grew into a co-educational secondary school after a merging with Cookman Institute of Jacksonville, Florida. By 1931 it was a junior college and in 1941 had grown into Bethune Cookman College, with a four year baccalaureate program offering liberal arts and teacher education.

 

By 1947, the institution was mortgage-free, had a faculty of 100 and a student enrollment of more than 1,000. On February 14, 2007, the Board of Trustees approved the name Bethune-Cookman University after the institution established its first graduate program. Student enrollment at Bethune-Cookman University for the academic year 2013-2014 was 3,486 (http://www.cookman.edu/). Bethune-Cookman University is one of the 105 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) in the USA.

 

Bethune McLeod believed that if African-American women were given the opportunity to vote, they could bring about change. In 1920, after passage of the 19th amendment, which allowed American women to vote, she went door to door raising money to pay the poll tax. In Southern states, African-Americans had to pay a poll tax and pass a literacy test before they were allowed to vote.

 

Beginning in the 1890s, southern states enacted literacy tests, poll taxes, elaborate registration systems and eventually Whites-only Democratic Party primaries to exclude African-American voters. The poll tax, as it applied to primary elections leading to general elections for federal office, was abolished when the 24th Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified in 1964. McLeod Bethune taught night classes providing a means for African-Americans to learn to read well enough to pass the literacy test. Her efforts eventually succeeded when 100 potential African-American voters had qualified.

 

The night before the election in November 1920, while McLeod Bethune worked late in her office, she noticed that all street lights had gone out. Then there was the sound of car horns and horse hooves; soon she saw a procession of about 100 people masked in white sheets following a burning cross. The students at the school were all young African-American girls, many of whom boarded on campus.

 

The terrifying sight recalled images of the brutality and violence perpetuated against Africans since their enslavement. Thinking quickly, McLeod Bethune ordered the lights turned off on campus and all outdoor floodlights turned on. The Klan was left standing in a pool of light watched by the terrified students, as the principal (McLeod Bethune) rallied her students to sing the spirituals that had comforted and imparted courage during the dreadful years of enslavement. The Klan soon dispersed and scattered into the night. The following day, McLeod Bethune led to the polls a procession of 100 African-American men and women, who were all voting for the first time.

 

McLeod Bethune was a national leader in the civil rights struggle. She was the highest ranking African-American in the Roosevelt administration and played an important role in the integration of America’s armed forces and the founding of the United Nations. She was recognized for her hard work during her lifetime, receiving the Spingarn Medal in 1935, the Frances Drexel Award for Distinguished Service in 1937, and the Thomas Jefferson Award for leadership in 1942. She received an honorary Doctor of Humanities degree from Rollins College in 1949, the first African-American to receive an honorary degree from a White southern college.

 

She received the Medal of Honor and Merit from the Republic of Haiti in 1949 and the Star of Africa from the Republic of Liberia in 1952. On July 10, 1974, 99 years after her birth, she became the first woman and the first African-American to be honoured with a statue in a public park (Lincoln Park) in Washington, D.C. Her portrait hangs in the South Carolina State House, the state capitol building in Columbia, South Carolina.

 

On May 18, 1955, Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of Bethune Cookman University, transitioned to be with the ancestors. Although McLeod Bethune wrote her “Last Will and Testament” (http://www.cookman.edu/about_BCU/history/lastwill_testament.html) before she transitioned in 1955, many Africans in the USA and Canada “are still underprivileged, ill-housed, impoverished and victimized by discrimination”.

 

The words that McLeod Bethune (who was born 139 years ago) wrote in her “Last Will and Testament” are words that every educator (including parents) should take to heart.

 

“Our children must never lose their zeal for building a better world. They must not be discouraged from aspiring toward greatness, for they are to be the leaders of tomorrow.”

 

tiakoma@hotmail.com

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