Wednesday, January 13, 2010


We must challenge, skillfully but resolutely, every sign of restriction or limitation on our full American citizenship. When I say challenge, I mean we must seek every opportunity to place the burden of responsibility upon him who denies. If we simply accept and acquiesce in the face of discrimination, we accept full responsibility ourselves and allow those responsible to salve their conscience by believing that they have our acceptance and concurrence. We should, therefore, protest openly everything in the newspapers, on the radio, in the movies that smacks of discrimination or slander.

Mary McLeod Bethune 1875 – 1955 Excerpt from “Mary McLeod Bethune: Building A Better World” published 1999

On May 18th, 1955, Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of Bethune Cookman University transitioned to be with the ancestors. Bethune Cookman University is one of the 105 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in the USA. McLeod Bethune was born Mary Jane McLeod on July 19, 1875 in Maysville, South Carolina the 15th of 17 children to Samuel and Patsy McLeod. Her parents had been enslaved Africans and she was the first child in her family who was born after the emancipation 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 secure their children from the various plantations where they had been sold. They eventually bought five acres of land where they built a home and raised their family of 17 children. Patsy McLeod continued working for the McLeod family 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 the family then owned. The 17 McLeod children also worked on the family’s land but Mary Jane McLeod also wanted something that most Africans could not afford, an education. When she was 11 years old she was allowed to attend the one room school for Africans in Maysville. She was an eager and brilliant student who impressed her teacher and she earned a scholarship to attend Scotia Seminary in North Carolina. After graduating from Scotia Seminary, McLeod was awarded a scholarship to attend the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. 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. She was disappointed when she was told that African American Missionaries were not allowed to go to Africa as missionaries.

Undaunted by the fact that her dream of becoming a missionary in Africa was not realized, Mary Jane McLeod instead went back to Maysville 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 a school for African American girls. 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 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. Her night classes provided a means for African-Americans to learn to read well enough to pass the literacy test. Soon one hundred potential voters had qualified. The night before the election, eighty members of the KKK confronted Bethune, warning her against preparing African-Americans to vote. Bethune did not back down, and the men left without causing any harm. The following day, Bethune led a procession of one hundred African-Americans to the polls, all voting for the first time.
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 a procession of 100 African-Americans to the polls, 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. McLeod Bethune 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, ninety-nine 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.

Mary McLeod Bethune founded a school for African American girls as an elementary school 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 250.00. Over several years the institute grew into a co-ed 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. Student enrollment at Bethune Cookman University has tripled since then.

In Toronto, the proposed establishment of an alternative African centred elementary school whipped up a media frenzy and hysteria including a racist, white supremacist cartoon in the Globe and Mail. On Wednesday, May 7th, the trustees who sit on the Program and School Services Committee approved the staff recommendation to establish the Africentric school with grades from Kindergarten to grade 5 in a shared facility at Sheppard Public School. This fell short of what the community had requested, a stand alone facility with grades from kindergarten to grade 12. An amendment to establish another site from grade 9 to 12 by 2010 was approved by the trustees. While some Toronto residents including the Premier of Ontario and white media are still stuck in “black schools bad” mode, the 10th annual African Centered Educational Conference will be held in Philadelphia on May, 16th and 17th. We have some serious catching up to do.

Written in May 2008

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