Chronicles of black courage: Mary McLeod Bethune started college with "$1.50 and faith"

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Date: Feb. 2002
From: Ebony(Vol. 57, Issue 4)
Publisher: Johnson Publishing
Document Type: Biography
Length: 2,602 words
Content Level: (Level 4)

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About this Person
Born: July 10, 1875 in Mayesville, South Carolina, United States
Died: May 18, 1955 in Daytona Beach, Florida, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Civil rights activist
Other Names: Bethune, Mary
Full Text: 

COURAGE comes in different packages and speaks different languages.

There is a courage called defiance, and there is a courage called perseverance.

There is a courage that shouts and a courage that whispers.

And although courage is generally identified with tumults and trumpets, it speaks loudest perhaps in small acts performed far from the applauding crowd--in the face of doubt, ridicule and disparagement--by a great spirit who refuses to give in or give up.

Such was the spirit of the young Mary McLeod Bethune, who was saved for immortality by the courage of the cotton field and the garbage dump. We know her best at the zenith of her career, when she advised presidents and shaped the vision of a whole generation of Black youths. But there can be no understanding of her character as it has passed into history without some understanding of the indomitable tenacity of spirit of the young woman who dreamed herself out of the cotton field and created a great institution on a noxious dumping ground called "Hell's Hole."

In the course of a long and exemplary career, the great educator became a living legend and was listed among the 50 greatest women produced in America. But she maintained until the end that the road to the heights leads through a thicket of ordinary, even menial, tasks. "There is no menial work," she said once, "only menial spirits." The words she repeated on a thousand platforms became famous:

"Cease to be a drudge, seek to be an artist."

She was an artist, even in the cotton field. The daughter of former slaves and the sister of former slaves, born on July 10, 1875, near Mayesville, S.C., she was sent to the field at an early age and could pick 250 pounds of cotton by the time she was 9. But nothing--neither cotton nor drudger nor Jim Crow-dampened the spirit of young Mary Jane, who transcended her environment by refusing to be limited by the limits of her environment. Always everywhere, even in the cotton field, she dreamed dreams. She dreamed of books and light and a world where Black virtue and beauty would not be crushed by bales of whiteness.

"I knew then," she said later, "as I stood in the cotton field helping with the farm work that I was called to a task which I could not name or explain."

She knew it, but the Jim Crow laws of South Carolina did not know it. Unbelievable as it may seem in this age, when it is fashionable to decry the quality of Black schools, there were no schools for Blacks in Mayesville. Young Mary Jane was 11 when the Presbyterians opened a one-room mission school. She walked five miles a day to this school and completed the limited curriculum. She then returned to the cotton field, for there were no public high schools for Blacks in her area.

A lesser spirit would have been crushed by this setback, but in her ease, as in so many other eases in Black history, defeat was a prelude, perhaps a necessary prelude, to victory. A White woman denoted a scholarship for a Black student "Who will make good." The local teacher remembered the light in the eyes of Mary McLeod, who went on to Scotia Seminary in North Carolina and Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. It was her intention then to go on to Africa as a missionary, but the eagerly awaited invitation never came, probably because of her race. Undaunted, the young woman returned to the South. She said later that she had wanted to go to Africa but that the Africa God called her to was named Florida.

In the years that followed, Mary McLeod taught school, married Albertus Bethune and gave birth to a son, Albert McLeod Bethune. Never for a moment, however, did she give up the great dream of her life--a school for Black girls. I'd been dreaming," she said, "all my life, down yonder in the cotton fields, in the classroom, singing in the Chicago slums, dreaming, dreaming, of big buildings and little children--my own institution. But where to put it?"

An answer came in 1904 when friends told her that there was a fertile missionary field in Daytona Beach, Florida, which was the focal point of a railroad construction project. Without a moment's hesitation, she caught a train for Daytona Beach and started her life's work. With capital of $1.50, raised by selling sandwiches and cakes to railroad construction workers, she rented a cottage and enrolled a handful of students. On October 4, 1904, the Daytona Literary and Industrial School for Training Negro Girls opened with five students.

Looking back later, Mrs. Bethune said:

"We burned logs and used the charred splinters as pencils. For ink, we mashed up elderberries. Strangers gave us a broom, a lamp, some cretonne to drape around the ugly packing case which served as my first desk. Day after day, I went to the city dump and visited trash piles behind hotels, looking for discarded linen and kitchenware, cracked dishes and shattered chairs. I became adept at begging for bits of old lumber, bricks and even cement. Salvaging, reconstructing, and making bricks without straw were all part of our training."

To the surprise of doubters and detractors, the school prospered, and Mrs. Bethune looked around for an area of expansion. The only available spot was the city dump, an unsavory place called "Hell's Hole." The asking price was $250. By selling ice cream and pies to workers, Mrs. Bethune raised $5.00 and talked to the owner into taking the balance over a two-year period.

With the help of students, parents and supportive Blacks, she cleared the dump and embarked on a frenzy of fund-raising. She sold sweet potato pies and fried fish. She sang at fashionable hotels, and she stood on street corners and begged.

People laughed at her. They called her a beggar and a dreamer. Undismayed by the ridicule and laughter, Mary McLeod Bethune went her way, and Blacks and Whites gathered under her banner. One day, so the story goes, a potential benefactor entered her office, which was furnished with crates and broken-down chairs.

"Where," asked the White philanthropist, "is this school you want me to be a trustee of?"

"In my mind," she answered, "and my soul."

With the help of powerful philanthropists, including James M. Gamble of Procter and Gamble, the institute grew into a secondary school and later, after a merger with Cookman Institute for Men, into a four-year college. When, in 1947, Mrs. Bethune relinquished the presidency, the institution was mortgage-free, had a faculty of 100 and a student enrollment of more than 1,000.

By this time, Mrs. Bethune was a national presence who defied the Klan and walked the Southland with the regal grace of the African rulers, from whom she said her mother descended. In later years she stumped the country against the poll tax, denounced lynching, and campaigned for wider social security coverage and a fair employment practices bill. She became a close friend of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1935, she organized the National Council of Negro Women. In 1936 she was named director of the Negro Affairs Division of the National Youth Administration.

The great educator remained active until the end. When she died on May 17, 1955, after a full day of work at her desk, she was buried at her own request, on the college campus beneath the soil of the garbage dump she had transformed into a flower garden. Her "Last Will and Testament," one of the great documents of our history, was written exclusively for EBONY magazine shortly before her death. In it, she said: **

** Copyright August 1955, EBONY magazine.

* I leave you love. Love builds. It is positive and helpful. It is more beneficial than hate. Injuries quickly forgotten quickly pass away. Personally and racially, our enemies must be forgiven. Our aim must be to create a world of fellowship and justice where no man's skin color or religion is held against him. "Love thy neighbor" is a precept, which could transform the world if it were universally practiced. It connotes all human relations. Loving your neighbor means being interracial, interreligious and international.

* 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 economic and political 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 striving and struggle. Theirs will be a better world. This I believe with all my heart.

* I leave you the challenge of developing confidence in one another. As long as Negroes are hemmed into racial blocs by prejudice and pressure, it will be necessary for them to band together for economic betterment. Negro banks, insurance companies and other businesses are examples of successful, racial economic enterprises. These institutions were made possible by vision and mutual aid. Confidence was vital in getting them started and keeping them going. Negroes have got to demonstrate still more confidence in each other in business. This kind of confidence will aid the economic rise of the race by bringing together the pennies and dollars of our people and ploughing them into useful channels. Economic separatism cannot tolerate in this enlightened age, and it is not practicable. We must spread out as far and as fast as we can, but we must also help each other as we go.

* I leave you a thirst for education. Knowledge is the prime need of the hour. More and more, Negroes are taking full advantage of hard-won opportunities for learning, and the educational level of the Negro population is at its highest point in history. We are making greater use of the privileges inherent in living in a democracy. If we continue in this trend, we will be able to rear increasing numbers of strong, purposeful men and women, equipped with vision, mental clarity, health and education.

* I leave you a respect for the uses of power. We live in a world which respects power above all things. Power, intelligently directed, can lead to more freedom. Unwisely directed, it can be a dreadful, destructive force. During my lifetime I have seen the power of the Negro grow enormously. It has always been my first concern that this power should be placed on the side of human justice.

Now that the barriers are crumbling everywhere, the Negro in America must be ever vigilant lest his forces be marshaled behind wrong causes and undemocratic movements. He must not lend his support to any group that seeks to subvert democracy. That is why we must select leaders who are wise, courageous, and of great moral stature and ability. We have great leaders among us today ... We have had great men and women in the past: Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Mary Church Terrell. We must produce more qualified people like them, who will work not for themselves, but for others.

* I leave you faith. Faith is the first factor in life devoted to service. Without faith, nothing is possible. With it, nothing is impossible. Faith in God is the greatest power, but great, too, is faith in oneself. In 50 years the faith of the American Negro in himself has grown immensely and is still increasing. The measure of our progress as a race is in precise relation to the depth of the faith in our people held by our leaders. Frederick Douglass, genius though he was, was spurred by a deep conviction that his people would heed his counsel and follow him to freedom. Our greatest Negro figures have been imbued with faith. Our forefathers struggled for liberty in conditions far more onerous than those we now face, but they never list the faith. Their perseverance paid rich dividends. We must never forget their sufferings and their sacrifices, for they were the foundations of the progress of our people.

* I leave you racial dignity. I want Negroes to maintain their human dignity at all costs. We, as Negroes, must recognize that we are the custodians as well as the heirs of a great civilization. We have given something to the world as a race and for this we are proud and fully conscious of our place in the total picture of mankind's development. We must learn also to share and mix with all men. We must make an effort to be less race conscious and more conscious of individual and human values. I have never been sensitive about my complexion. My color has never destroyed my self-respect nor has it ever caused me to conduct myself in such a manner as to merit the disrespect of any person. I have not let my color handicap me. Despite many crushing burdens and handicaps, I have risen from the cotton fields of South Carolina to found a college, administer it during its years of growth, become a public servant in the government of our country and a leader of women. I would not exchange my color for all the wealth in the world, for had I been born White I might not have been able to do all that I have done ...

* I leave you a desire to live harmoniously with your fellow men. The problem of color is worldwide. It is found in Africa and Asia, Europe and South America. I appeal to American Negroes--North, South, East and West--to recognize their common problems and unite to solve them.

I pray that we will learn to live harmoniously with the White race. So often, our difficulties have made us hyper-sensitive and truculent. I want to see my people conduct themselves naturally in all relationships--fully conscious of their manly responsibilities and deeply aware of their heritage. I want them to learn to understand Whites and influence them for good, for it is advisable and sensible for us to do so. We are a minority ... living side by side with a White majority. We must learn to deal with these people positively and on an individual basis.

* I leave you finally a responsibility to our young people. The world around us really belongs to youth for youth will take over its future management. Our children must never lose their zeal for building a better world. They must not be discouraged from aspiring toward greatness, for they are to be the leaders of tomorrow. Nor must they forget that the masses of our people are still underprivileged, ill-housed, impoverished and victimized by discrimination. We have a powerful potential in our youth, and we must have the courage to change old ideas and practices so that we may direct the power toward good ends.

Faith, courage, brotherhood, dignity, ambition, responsibility--these are needed today as never before. We must cultivate them and use them as tools for our task of completing the establishment of equality for the Negro. We must sharpen these tools in the struggle that faces us and find new ways of using them. The Freedom Gates are half ajar. We must pry them fully open.

If I have a legacy to leave my people--it is my philosophy of living and serving. I pray now that my philosophy may be helpful to those who share my vision of a world of Peace, Progress, Brotherhood and Love.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A82479150