We are in the middle of Black History Month and I want to take a few minutes to tell you about someone I greatly admire, a lady that overcame overwhelming obstacles to make a difference in the lives of her culture, Mary McLeod Bethune. Here’s an excerpt from my book Help Wanted; moms raising daughters that tells of a lady that created an opportunity for education in lives of little girls that were just like her.
When Mary McLeaod Bethune was nine years old, Mary tagged along with her mother to take a basket of freshly washed and ironed clothes to her former master Ben Wilson’s house. They had to go around the home to the entrance in the rear, the one through which the blacks could enter. In 1884 in Mayesville, South Carolina, there was absolute segregation between the races. Her mother went inside to take the family their clothes and receive the few cents paid for such a job.
Waiting outside, Mary was captivated by a children’s playhouse she saw and peeked inside. Two white girls about her age sat inside on scaled-down furniture. They were playing with their dolls.
“Hello, Mary! Do you want to come in?” one of them called out. Of course she did. Mary was just a little girl, and she wasn’t admitted to such circles every day. A passion ignited in Mary that day. Seeing past her circumstances and limitations, she made a decision that changed her life and the lives of many after her.
You see, Mary was the fifteenth child of seventeen children. She was the first child born free to a family of former slaves. Her family only knew hard work, cotton fields, and difficult times. They were free and had five acres of land to work but nothing more.
Mary wanted more, and this day made her determine how to go about it. She recounted the event in this manner:
“I picked up one of the books…. And one of the girls said to me—“You can’t read that—put that down. I will show you some pictures over here,” and when she said to me, “You can’t read that—put that down,” it just did something to my pride and to my heart that made me feel that someday I would read just as she was reading.”
Mary McLeod Bethune discovered the world of education through that one act. She realized the plight of her race was limited by the lack of education, and she begged her parents for that opportunity. It came when the Mission Board of the Presbyterian Church sent one young black woman, Emma Wilson, in city clothes to educate the black children of South Carolina. Mary was the first to attend. She graduated from that school at age twelve, wanting more education but not having any way to achieve it. She prayed for a miracle.
A few years later Mary was awarded a scholarship that had been given by a Quaker woman in Colorado. She had a life savings she wanted to donate to allow one black child a chance to attend Scotia Seminary School in North Carolina. Mary became that child. After attending Scotia Seminary, she received a scholarship to the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, where she continued to be a high achiever. Mary was the only African-American student there, and one of only a few non-whites.
But Mary didn’t stop with her own education. After graduating from Moody Bible Institute, she moved to Daytona, Florida, where she began her own school in 1904: the Literary and Industrial School for Training Negro Girls. The beginnings were meager. Mary had only $1.50 to her name, five students, and shipping crates for desks. But she had a determined heart. Mary created opportunity through education for many that would not have received it anywhere else. She had immense faith in God, and believed that nothing was impossible. She remained president of the school for more than forty years.
While much of her energy was devoted to keeping the College solvent, she also provided a better living condition for her parents and an education for her son and grandson. Two axioms of Mary’s philosophy—“not for myself, but for others” and “I feel that as I give I get”—were confessed to the then president of Fisk University, Charles S. Johnson.
Educational opportunity today is at our fingertips, she was one of many educators to make this happen for girls like she was. But if that's all we think this amazing lady brought to us we are missing so much of her story. What I believe is it's that fact that she overcame whatever challenges she faced. Then she didn't stop there she stepped outside of her needs to meet the needs of others. This is an attitude we should emulate, overcoming obstacles then caring for others. It's these traits that we should embrace as our own. It is indeed this character that made this woman someone we all can truly admire.