Sunday, July 16, 2017

$1.50 and a Dream

Historic photo of Mary McLeod Bethune at the front of a line of students, early 1900s.
Students line up behind Mary McLeod Bethune in
Daytona Beach in this historic public-domain photo.
 Photo source: State Archives of Florida
July is the birth anniversary month of Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955). I assume everyone knows the educator, activist and political advisor to presidents, because she was one of the most famous women of her day. If you don't, you should.

Her life and legacy are too large to cover in a blog post. My blog is about daily life in earlier times. This post's focus is on Mrs. (later Dr.) Bethune's early days in Daytona Beach, when she famously started what is now Bethune-Cookman University with $1.50 and five students in 1904. Sounds like she simply started teaching. It was anything but simple.

The daughter of former slaves "dared to defy the caste system," writes her granddaughter Dr. Evelyn Bethune in a family memoir, Bethune: Out of the darkness into the light of Freedom. Daytona Beach was strictly segregated. African-Americans weren't allowed on the beachside unless they were working. The new schoolhouse was a shack, and Mrs. Bethune and her son, Albert, raised the $1.50 needed for rent by selling sandwiches and pies.

(You can find her sweet potato pie recipe in the October 2015 issue of the Mary McLeod Bethune Foundation's newsletter, The Legendary Retreat. It's on Page 4.)

While wealthier residents penned letters in ink on stationary, the five students of the new Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls, and Albert Bethune, scrounged for writing implements. Dr. Bethune writes that they "crushed elderberries to use as ink." Also, "The charred splinters of burned logs were substituted for pencils." Butcher paper and paper bags served as writing surfaces. 

As the school grew, Mrs. Bethune hosted fundraisers, courted wealthy winter residents, and searched for land to buy. The only thing available - or so she was told - was property at the town dump. She sailed forward. 

By 1919, Mrs. Bethune was profiled in the book Women of Achievement by the then-dean of Morehouse College, Benjamin Brawley. He writes of the early days at the permanent site:
By means of concerts and festivals the first payment of five dollars was made on the present site, then an old dump-pile. With their own hands the teacher and the pupils cleared away much of the rubbish, and from the first they invited the cooperation of the people around them by lending a helping hand in any way they could, by 'being neighborly.' 
The student population had grown to almost 200 by 1919. As the years went on, Mrs. Bethune persevered through challenges and obstacles that included visits by the Klu Klux Klan. In one famous incident, she ushered her students into one building and sang hymns with them as klansmen gathered outside. The men's identities were hidden behind hoods, as usual. Dr. Bethune notes in her family memoir that no one was harmed that night.

Mrs. Bethune was a woman of tremendous faith, writes her granddaughter. She was strong-willed, determined, and willing to work hard for her dream of helping others. This post touches on only one small portion of her wide-ranging life. Visit her house, which is a National Historic Landmark. Learn more about her. She'll inspire you.





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