You may have seen this face before, maybe not. But you should damn well know who she is.
Mary Jane McLeod Bethune was born today, on July 10th, 1875 in South Carolina. Her parents were former slaves because if you remember, slavery was abolished in 1865 by the 14th amendment. Bethune’s parents had only been free for a decade before she entered the world.
And thank God and Goddess for her entry.
Now Bethune was one of 17 children and they all grew up very poor. Everyone worked the fields for the family to survive but she got the opportunity to go to school. She went through Elementary, Secondary and then went to college and became a teacher.
Now listen, one day, I was fiddling around on my computer. I don’t know what I was or was not searching for but I found Bethune and began to read up on her and felt both an immense amount of pride and shame.
Pride because of the following:
Mary Jane (I’m calling her by her first name because she’s like family to me. I know I’m breaking the rules.) came back to the South after she graduated from college and taught for 10 years. During that time she got married and had a son moved to Florida to teach at a missionary school. Her husband was also a teacher and preacher. And one day, he left her and their son and moved back to South Carolina.
In 1904 she founded her own PRIVATE school for Negro girls in Daytona Florida. She rented a house and turned it into a school. She built desks and benches with her own hands and furnished the school with other necessities through charity. She opened up the school with 6 students, 5 girls and her son Albert.
Within a year, her school grew to 30 students and she received much of her funding from churches. After meeting Booker T. Washington of the Tuskegee Institute in 1912, he told her, she gotta go get the bag from the White folks if she wanted her school to stay viable and well funded. And that she did. She invited wealthy White men to sit on the school’s board of trustees. She was able to secure funding from John Gamble of Proctor and Gamble, Thomas White of White Sewing Machines and John D. Rockefeller. She built a strong relationship with Franklin D. Roosevelt, which helped her to make her way around the progressive Whites, who had a lot of sympathy and even more money to give.
By 1931 Bethune had so developed her school for girls, the Daytona Normal and Industrial School, that she was able partner with the Cookman College for Men to create Bethune Cookman Junior College. 10 years later, under her leadership as President, Bethune Cookman College became a full accredited college.
And that would be a nice way to end the story of her life, right? But there is much much more. While she was turning a dream into a reality, she was also very politically involved.
- She led the Florida chapter of the National Organization of Colored Women.
- She was the President of the Southeastern Association of Colored Women’s Club.
- She founded the National council of Negro women.
- She served as the Special Assistant to the Secretary of War.
- She became the Director of Negro Affairs under Roosevelt’s Work Progress Initiative.
- She formed a coalition of leaders from Black Organizations called the Federal Council of Negro Affairs.
Wait, she was also a business woman, owning and running two independent businesses. She co-owned a resort in Daytona and co-founded a life insurance company in Tampa.
Now do you understand why I feel such a great sense of shame?
- I never learned about Mama Bethune in my K-12 education. I hadn’t even learned about her in my college education and that’s three degrees worth of college education. Of course I had heard her name, but, I mean, I could identify her name. That’s it. I knew she was a Black Woman.
- I spent so much of my career as a teacher being afraid to do what was right for my students. I mean, I did the damn thing, thanks to my great principals, especially Ms. Tira Randall. But I always felt like I was being extra and annoying all my colleagues because I wanted to do something revolutionary.
- And lastly, I battle with shame because I have big ideas for the future of education for Diasporic people and I’m constantly having to talk myself out of talking myself out of doing what I believe is true and necessary. And this woman, born of former slaves, 10 years out of slavery did all of the above.
Mama Bethune died in 1955, 3 years before my mom was born. That blows my mind. She died of a heart attack, probably because she was doing the most and the stress of all of that on an 80 year old was clearly too much to bear.
So today is her birthday and I am honoring her by bringing my dreams into reality. For those of you going back to the classroom in September, how are you honoring our shero?
How are you doubting yourself, within the institution of teaching and outside of it?
Where do you need to be courageous, when it comes to teaching and loving our students and when it comes to honoring and loving yourself?
Has your integrity been bought for a job?
I know you’re probably saying, easier said than done, but I’m doing it. I got my receipts. Show me yours.
Soooo, do you want to do some Summer reading that may encourage you to stop doubting yourself, become more courageous and live fully in your integrity and purpose? We’ve been talking about The Mis-education of the Negro all year. I think you should (re)read it.
I started rereading it in June and I’m so inspired and challenged. It is helping me to be more honest and creative and is a big part of the transformation CREAD is undergoing. I am a firm believer in rereading certain books every year and this is definitely one of them.
Until next time.