I first heard about Mary McLeod Bethune when I was a student at Moody Bible Institute.
She was an early graduate of my college - and an African American woman. I knew she had gone on to become one of the greatest women in our country. She was so well known that she earned the status of being featured on our postage stamps.
But I didn't really know much about her.
As I researched Mary McLeod Bethune for my book, When Others Shuddered: Eight Women Who Refused to Give Up. I learned a bit more about her remarkable life:
- She was the 15th of 17 children, born to former slaves.
- From an early age, she hungered for education.
- She graduated from Moody Bible Institute with a desire for missionary service to Africa - an opportunity she was denied because of her race.
- Undeterred, she started a school for African American girls in Daytona Beach, Florida, that went on to become Bethune Cookman University.
- She was asked to work with Franklin D. Roosevelt and led many African American organizations for women and children through the early to mid 1900s.
Each of these things is impressive. But as I read, I was also deeply moved by her determination, resiliency, and passion. Mary McLeod Bethune dreamed big - and achieved even bigger things.
She never let anyone deter her, and, even in the face of racial injustice, never let hate dominate her life. She had pride in who she was and in her people. She refused to be afraid, facing off against the Ku Klux Klan. When they approached her school, she ordered all the lights turned on so she could look into their faces. Leading the young girls around her, they began to sing a hymn - and they sang them right off the campus!
She had dreams, and she had the determination to make them reality. She rented her first school building with only $1.65 in her pocket. She used crates as desks and sang on corners asking for money. When she asked a wealthy donor to visit her school and be on the board of trustees, he looked around in dismay. "Where is this school you want me to run?" asked the wealthy man. "It's here. It's in my heart," said Bethune. And the man pulled out a checkbook. She believed, and incredible things happened.
As I walked by her grave, planted over a former garbage dump that she purchased for the expansion of her little school and turned into a major university, I was humbled. Her gravestone reads: "She has given her best, that others may live a more abundant life." The bell hanging up to the right, signifies her desire to "ring" the bell of education and freedom for African American children in the South at a time when that was not a possibility.
As I toured the Bethune Foundation that occupies her former home. I saw her desk, the sun streaming into her bedroom through glass windows (the windows she wished for as a young girl growing up in slavery), a velvet dress laid across her bed. Her home has been turned into a place that serves as an inspiration to others. I almost felt like she would walk into the room and greet me.
She didn't, of course, but her students did welcome me. Her college, Bethune Cookman University, is filled with students who are learning and achieving and growing.
This is a woman I wish I could have known.
Mary McLeod Bethune wrote: "My love is a universal factor in my experience, transcending pettiness, discrimination, segregation, narrowness and unfair dealings with regard to my opportunities to grow and serve. Through love and faith and determination I have been persistently facing obstacles, small and large, and I have made them stepping stones upon which to rise."
And rise she did.
God blessed the world through this remarkable woman.