“Power, intelligently directed, can lead to more freedom.” These are the words of one of the most prominent African American civil rights activist in U.S. history, Mary Mcleod Bethune.
Just a decade after the Civil War, Bethune was one of seventeen children born on a rice farm near Mayesville, South Carolina. Her parents, being former slaves, strived to give their children an education and future. From a very early age, Bethune believed education was the key to improving the lives of African Americans. As a bright child, Bethune attended Scotia Seminary in North Carolina and later attended Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, both thru full scholarships. She deeply valued education, as she recalled that “The whole world opened to me when I learned to read”. After finishing school she tried to become a missionary in Africa but was turned down due to her skin color. She then returned to the South and decided to teach.
In 1904, Bethune invested in a piece of land that was used at the time as the city dump in Daytona, Florida. She and five of her peers cleared the space and founded the Daytona Literary and Industrial School for Training Negro Girls. The school would later be expanded in to a high school, and later transformed into Bethune-Cookman College. Bethune used her strong faith and morals to teach young African Americans the power of knowledge in black education. Having been a well-known black leader, Bethune sought national change. In 1935, she founded the National Council of Negro Women and later joined the National Youth Administration, where she fought against discrimination and worked to improve the lives of African American women and youth. Bethune, being such a powerful activist, was appointed as national advisor by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. She developed a close bond with his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, and in the late 1930s helped create the “Black Cabinet”. Through her leadership and persistence, Bethune became one of the biggest African American civil rights leaders in the history of America.
Having been such an influence, Mary Mcleod Bethune, was honored by having a school in Chicago named after her. Unfortunately, In the summer of June 2013, Mary Mcleod Bethune Elementary School in Chicago closed. The school, located in the East Garfield Park neighborhood, was closed due to underused facilities after years of population decline. Before closing, Bethune Elementary served 377 students in a building that could serve 780 students. Underutilization and low test scores led to Bethune’s closing and collaboration with John Milton Elementary School, a mile away. Although the government might be saving money from the school closing, families claim that their children are not getting the help that they once had at Bethune. “With all these kids in school, how’s a teacher going to notice a kid?”, said a local mom, Ms. Turner.
However, even though the physical building has been closed and will soon be a faint memory, Mary Mcleod Bethune’s legacy and accomplishments will not be. Some of Bethune’s last words in her testament read, “If I have a legacy to leave my people, it is my philosophy of living and serving.”
Bethune, Mary Mcleod Bethune, “The Mary Mcleod Bethune Foundation Has Been Born To Inspire Posterity.” The Chicago Defender, Apr 11 1953.
“A Black Woman’s Pride and Legacy.” Chicago Tribune (1963-Current file): 18. Jul 10 1974.
“Mary Mcleod Bethune”, The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, No. 29 (Autumn, 2000), p.125
Smith, Elaine M. “Mary Mcleod Bethune’s `Last Will And Testament’: A Legacy For Race Vindication.” Journal Of Negro History (1996): 105. America: History & Life.
Yaccino, Steven “Chicago School Closings May Leave Some Communities Without Old Lifelines”, The New York Times, May 21 2013.
— Joe Anderson