She stepped up to the stage after the dynamic speaker shared her thoughts on education, on race, on creating one of Florida's most prestigious historically black colleges.
She looked the speaker in the eyes, embraced her and sweetly said, "Hello, grandmother." And in that moment, Ersula Odom's ongoing portrayal of Mary McLeod Bethune received its most significant endorsement — from the granddaughter of the legendary educator.
"When Evelyn put her arms around me and said, 'Hello, grandmother,' it was as if Dr. Bethune herself had done so," Odom said. "It was so moving and so energizing."
In the minutes that followed, students continued to ask Odom questions, providing a scene that illustrates why Black History Month remains a critical commemoration for connecting with the next generation.
Meeting Evelyn Bethune after the performance earlier this month in Daytona Beach held great meaning for Odom, a Tampa-based author and actor who has revived Bethune's legacy through her performances across the state.
Odom says Evelyn Bethune not only raved about how she portrayed her grandmother, but strongly urged her to continue — as long as possible — keeping Bethune's legacy alive.
With the granddaughter's embrace, Odom received a stamp of approval on how she channels the life of Bethune.
A well-known national figure in the first half of the 20th century, Bethune was an educator and activist who founded Bethune-Cookman University in 1904 as Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute, served as president of the National Association of Colored Women, and founded the National Council of Negro Women.
Odom received an additional endorsement at the event from Ashley Robertson, the curator/director of the Mary McLeod Bethune Foundation, who hosted the event. Robertson shared that she had fact-checked Odom and was quietly cheering throughout the presentation.
The Daytona Beach appearances marked just part of what proved to be an interesting month for Odom. She moved on to Tallahassee and delivered another performance before an audience that included William Mattox, director of the Marshall Center for Educational Options at the James Madison Institute.
After the performance, Mattox wrote a story for the Wall Street Journal, drawing a parallel between Odom's portrayal — which highlighted how Bethune initially received support from James N. Gamble, son of the Procter & Gamble co-founder — and the appointment of another cleaning product heir, new Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
Mattox reasoned that just as Bethune, with Gamble's help, wanted to create a school outside the education establishment for neglected black children, DeVos wants to take a similar approach in expanding school choice and promoting vouchers to increase private school attendance.
Odom, naturally, drew a positive that her performance inspired a Wall Street Journal story. She was quick, however, to acknowledge the controversy stemming from the story.
From my perspective, the debate regarding choice doesn't involve negating alternate opportunities, but ensuring enough opportunities exist for every student and that truly no child gets left behind.
Solutions for the children of parents too busy or too apathetic to navigate the educational structure are far more complex, and it can't be solved simply through a voucher system for some.
The greater point, however, lies in how historical portrayals and a study of the past helps lend context to the present. Odom's work — she also spoke in Dunedin and at her alma mater, Eckerd College — reflects the important role history plays in inspiring the next generation.
As Bethune wrote in her Last Will and Testament, a document treasured by Bethune-Cookman officials, this is an imperative:
"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."
We fuel that zeal by using history to build a bridge between today's generation and the greatest heroes of our past. Odom does that every time she steps on stage as Mary McLeod Bethune.
That's all I'm saying.