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A Treasure for All Seasons: A Women's History Month Salute to Mrs. Mary McLeod Bethune

Updated on March 29, 2012


I became fascinated with Mrs. Mary McLeod Bethune in 1988 when I was hired to portray her in a play called “With Vision, Convictions and A Voice”. A Marin County theater company known as People Speaking sent the script and I had a week to ‘put on’ Mrs. Bethune. That week of preparation was simply extraordinary and every moment of Mrs. Bethune’s life and work spoke volumes into my spirit.


I discovered that Mrs. Bethune was a woman of great faith and wisdom who regarded obstacles as stepping stones to success. She was irresistible to me as a character and I resolved to invest greatly to bring her life to the stage.


As I prepared for that performance I looked first for Mrs. Bethune’s passion and found it in her own words—“I will not rest until every Negro child has a chance to prove their worth ”.

I next looked for challenges that drove her and found them in a life changing moment when she was six years old. Mrs. Bethune was born in 1875 and was the first of her parents 17 children to be born free in Mayesville, South Carolina. When she was six she accompanied her mother to a former slave master’s mansion and was left to play with the slave master’s granddaughters in their life-sized playhouse. Mrs. Bethune remembers saying, “Can you read, Miss? Can you teach me to read ?”-- and hearing in reply, “don’t be silly Mary, you can’t read- you’re colored .”

That moment was an important layer for my portrayal of her and a faith building moment for Mrs. Bethune. From that moment on Mrs. Bethune believed that she had to learn to read. She made her desire known to her parents and prayed diligently in the cotton fields for opportunity

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Despite nightmarish sounds and sights of lynchings, burning crosses, hateful words, and unbelievable poverty, Mrs. Bethune pressed into her future resolved to first, get an education and to then to use that education to open doors for her people. Her story of standing in the middle of a Daytona Beach city dump and envisioning the corridors and buildings of her college was priceless. With a lot of hard work and persistence, Mrs. Bethune’s vision eventually became the bustling campus we know today as Bethune Cookman College. But that was only the beginning.


Her fundraising efforts for the college drew her to Washington D.C. where she found great favor with several White House administrations and was appointed Director of Negro Affairs for President Roosevelt’s National Youth Administration in 1936. One of my favorite stories was about her first walk across the White House lawn.


“A white gardener stopped me and said, Just where do you think you’re going, Auntie?” I looked at him for a moment and said, “Oh my goodness, I almost didn’t recognize you. Which one of my sister’s children are you?”


That was classic Mrs. Bethune and many leaders in that town described her as having ‘an iron fist covered with a velvet glove’.


Among her many other accomplishments, Mrs. Bethune was the founding President of the National Council of Negro Women in 1935 and was a voting member of the founding conference for the United Nations in 1945. For Mrs. Bethune, both of these activities were extraordinarily significant because she believed “it was high time to see black faces in high places .”


As I stepped into Mrs. Bethune’s shoes for that first performance, I could sense her mission rising up in me. Her cane, the pearls, the gloves all seemed to take on a life of their own. Somehow I knew that the applause at the performance’s end was not for me but for the rich legacy of hope and determination that Mrs. Bethune left behind.


Mrs. Bethune died in 1975 but her legacy continues to resound globally and has been captured in a work of living history called “Faithwalker: The Life and Times of Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune”.


One thing is certain. This generation needs to hear more about this mover and shaker who was one of the most influential women in history. I will not rest until it happens.

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If Mrs. Bethune were alive today, what issues would she be actively involved in?

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