Grateful American® Foundation

Mary McLeod Bethune

Special to the Newsletter
by Michael F. Bishop

In Washington, D.C.’s Lincoln Park–with the Capitol dome visible just ten blocks away–is a magnificent statue of President Abraham Lincoln in the act of freeing a slave. His hand is outstretched over a black man rising to his feet, broken shackles laying all around. In Lincoln’s other hand is a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation. Sculpted by Thomas Ball and funded by the donations of former slaves, the “Emancipation Memorial” was dedicated in 1876 at a ceremony attended by President Ulysses Grant, the highlight of which was an oration by Frederick Douglass.

Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial, Washington, D.C.

Thus, it was only fitting that in 1974, a sculpture was dedicated-at the other end of the Park-in honor of Mary McLeod Bethune, a civil rights activist and educator whose parents had been slaves. In an echo of the Lincoln statue, McLeod is seen reaching out to two children, passing along a rolled-up document symbolizing her legacy. There is a pleasing symmetry to the two works of art; as Lincoln broke the bonds of slavery, Bethune furthered the liberties of black Americans. Her monument features an inscription she wrote not long before her death:

“I leave you to love. I leave you to hope. I leave you the challenge of developing confidence in one another. I leave you a thirst for education. I leave you a respect for the use of power. I leave you faith. I leave you racial dignity. I leave you a desire to live harmoniously with your fellow men. I leave you a responsibility to our young people.”

Mary McLeod was born in South Carolina in 1875, a decade after the end of slavery, but in a time and place where opportunities for her and her large family were severely circumscribed. But McLeod soon discovered a passion for reading and entered a new world of potential. It took struggle and sacrifice for her–and them–but she went to school and embarked on a career as an educator.

A brief and unhappy marriage to Albertus Bethune led to a move to Florida, where she would remain-long after Bethune left her. She founded the Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls, teaching–at first–only a few students until enrollment and donations ramped up. With determination and deft diplomacy, she secured support from whites and blacks, and received a large cash gift from John D. Rockefeller. Her little school eventually merged with another to form the Bethune-Cookman College, to train young men and women.

Bethune’s influence grew, and among her supporters were Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. She spent a great deal of time in Washington, D.C., raising funds for her school and other endeavors, and lobbying for an expansion of black voting rights. As President of the National Association of Colored Women, she established a new headquarters building in Washington, and served in various positions in New Deal agencies. A co-founder of the United Negro College Fund, she helped raise enormous sums to make higher education available to more black Americans.

She was determined that “Not only the Negro child but children of all races should read and know of the achievements, accomplishments, and deeds of the Negro. World peace and brotherhood are based on a common understanding of the contributions and cultures of all races and creeds.” Her achievements were extraordinary; in addition to founding schools and civil rights organizations, she served in important government positions. In time she also became a wealthy property owner. With her walking stick–which she didn’t need but enjoyed flourishing–she cut a charismatic figure. And throughout her long and successful career, she battled Jim Crow laws and the Ku Klux Klan with ferocious but cheerful determination.

Bethune died of a heart attack in 1955, her remarkable life having encompassed and brought about profound changes. She was buried in Daytona and showered with posthumous praise. Her vision for the future was optimistic, and she looked forward to a future of greater racial justice. As she once declared:

“I leave you hope. The Negro’s growth will be great in the years to come. Yesterday our ancestors endured the degradation of slavery, yet they retained their dignity. Today, we direct our strength toward winning a more abundant and secure life. Tomorrow, a new Negro, unhindered by race taboos and shackles, will benefit from more than 330 years of ceaseless struggle. Theirs will be a better world. This I believe with all my heart.”

Michael F. Bishop, a writer and historian, is the former executive director of the International Churchill Society and the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.

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