Our coronavirus coverage is free for the first 24 hours. Find the latest information at Please consider subscribing or donating.

  1. Archive

A remembrance of Mary McLeod Bethune

Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955) was an educator, administrator and humanitarian who served as an adviser to Presidents Herbert Hoover, Harry S. Truman and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Perhaps her greatest legacy is the college she founded in Daytona Beach in 1904. It started as the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls but is now Bethune-Cookman College. Today's Black History Moment is a contribution from Vivien Lipscombe Smith, a Tampa reader who recalls meeting Mary McLeod Bethune and other notables. Smith is a former public information specialist for the federal government and the Virgin Islands Port Authority.

A remembrance of Mary McLeod Bethune

In the spring of 1951, I was a 7-year-old campus brat, growing up among Virginia's Negro intelligentsia. My dad was on the faculty at Hampton Institute (now Hampton University), one of America's oldest and most prestigious black colleges.

Back then, I was too young to understand how rare and blessed my life was. I didn't know I was watching black history in the making every day.

I lived among ghosts of Booker T. Washington, R. Nathaniel Dett, Robert R. Moton, and Charles White _ all Hamptonians and black men of history. But, I didn't know, until she was gone, that one of Florida's black legends had touched my life and fed my spirit.

In those days, Dr. Alonzo G. Moron was president of the college. He and his glamorous wife, Leigh, were noted for bringing black history-makers to the campus and entertaining them, in lavish black-bourgeoisie style, at the President's Mansion House. My mother often carted me along to these functions, where she and other faculty wives were hostesses.

As usual, I was the only youngster at a particular garden party honoring that year's commencement speaker. Knowing I was out of place, I sought refuge alone in a quiet corner. I sat on a little stone bench, hidden behind a profusion of spring blooms. From a distance, I watched the milling, conversing adults and noticed one in particular as probably the homeliest black woman I had ever seen. She seemed to be the center of attention.

I remember thinking, in my childish snobbery, "Oh, please, God, don't let that ugly old lady come over here and mess with me." Thank God, she did!

I watched apprehensively as she ambled across the vast lawn. She was short and broad and leaned heavily on a walking stick. Her dark, broad-nosed face was haloed by rough, graying hair.

She plodded past all the adults and soon settled down beside me. She spoke to me, in rich, quiet tones, of the beauty that glows in each new spring, and the creative power of God that lives in each new blossom. Then, she told me that a little girl is like a fresh spring flower, full of beauty and God's promise of new life.

As we talked, she was transformed. Her exquisite spirit lit her face and deep love ignited her eyes. Her smile was warmer than the sparkling Southern sunshine we shared. I saw true beauty shine from her heart.

From that moment, my young eyes were forever opened to the loveliness of God's design in nature, myself and one very special spirit.

Years later when, as a teen-ager studying Negro history, I noticed her portrait hanging in the college's Administration Building, I realized that I had shared a glowing spring afternoon with Mary McLeod Bethune.

She had taught in mission schools in the early 1900s, and co-founded Bethune-Cookman College in 1923. She founded the National Council of Negro Women in 1935 and was special assistant to the U.S. Secretary of War for the selection of officer candidates for the Women's Army Corps during World War II. This African-American woman had been special adviser to President Roosevelt on minority affairs, a vice-president of the NAACP, and a consultant on interracial relations at the conference that led to the organization of the United Nations.

Then, she came to deliver Hampton Institute's 1951 commencement address. And, she stopped to speak to me, a little girl sitting alone in a garden.



Discussion questions

1. Bethune was said to be a member of President Truman's "Kitchen Cabinet." What does the term mean and how did it come into use? What function did it serve?

2. What are the "Negro intelligentsia" and "black bourgeoisie" Smith mentions in her essay?

3. A statue of Bethune stands in Lincoln Park in Washington, D.C. What is its significance?