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Dr. Mary Bethune's legacy: Finding diamonds in the rough

Dr. Mary Bethune's legacy: Finding diamonds in the rough

Conference News Leadership

Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune was a visionary. She was a teacher, fighter, leader, peacemaker, White House advisor, and she counted former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson among her many friends.

People were drawn to this 15th child of former slaves because of her integrity and tenacity. She lived one of the most influential lives in Florida history, which included founding what today is Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach.

Faith and her commitment to the Methodist Church were at the center of her life.

That life, lived during a period of racial animus throughout this state and station, stands as an example for women and students. And soon, it will stand immortalized when a 6,000-pound, 11-foot marble statue of Dr. Bethune takes its place in the U.S. Capitol's National Statuary Hall after arriving initially from Italy.

Each state is allowed to place two statues in the Hall. There was bipartisan agreement in 2016 when Florida lawmakers agreed that the statue of Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith had to go.

Workers removed it earlier this year. In 2018, there was unanimous agreement in the Florida Legislature that Dr. Bethune should take his place. When the installation of her statue is complete, she will become the first Black person to have a state-commissioned statue in the Hall.

It will be a special moment for Rev. Dr. Geraldine McClellan. She is a graduate of Bethune-Cookman and went on to a long career of service to the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church.

"We were all Mary's children," she said. "She chose us when she made the charge to invest in our lives. Stepping out in faith, she said, 'Who knows, it might be a diamond in the rough.'

"Bethune-Cookman College (now a university) was that diamond in the rough where Mary's children could prepare themselves to be doctors, lawyers, teachers, musicians, professional athletes, and much more."

A woman on a mission 

In October, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa helped unveil the statue in Daytona Beach, where it was on display until its move to the Capitol.

Her statue on display in Daytona Beach

"Dr. Bethune embodies the very best of the Sunshine State – Floridians and all Americans can take great pride in being represented by the great educator and civil rights icon," she said.

"I am glad that she is being rightfully recognized here in Florida before she travels to her place of honor and recognition by all of America in the U.S. Capitol."

Mary McLeod Bethune was 29 years old when she arrived in Daytona Beach in 1904. Her mission was to start a school for girls.

She had $1.50 in working capital.

She convinced city leaders to allow her to build the school on what had been a garbage dump. However, she saw the diamond in that roughness, and, thus, she founded the Daytona Literary and Industrial Training Institute for Negro Girls.

Five girls and her 5-year-old son, Albert, Jr., were the first enrollees. Within two years, more than 250 students attended the school.

A profile on the Bethune-Cookman website notes, "She created pencils from charred wood, ink from elderberries, and mattresses from moss-stuffed corn sacks."

She didn't stop there.

To address health issues and the lack of medical treatment available to Blacks in Daytona Beach, she founded the Mary McLeod Hospital and Training School for Nurses. It was the first school of its kind on the east coast.

A transformative place

Reverend Dr. David Allen Jr., the incoming Superintendent of the North Central District in the Florida Conference, earned his Bachelor of Arts degree at Bethune-Cookman. He has served as pastor at Stewart Memorial UMC in Daytona Beach

"It's a transformative place," he said. "If you invest the time, read her story, and walk the campus, you'll feel her presence."

Stewart Memorial is near the home on 628 Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune Blvd. That's
where she lived until her death on May 18, 1955. Her last will and testament is posted on the university's website.

"Truly, my worldly possessions are few," she wrote. "Yet, my experiences have been rich. From them, I have distilled principles and policies in which I believe firmly, for they represent the meaning of my life's work. They are the products of much sweat and sorrow.

"Perhaps in them there is something of value. So, as my life draws to a close, I will pass them on to Negroes everywhere in the hope that an old woman's philosophy may give them inspiration."

Her grave and memorial stand just west of the home, declared a national historic landmark by the National Park Service in 1975 on the university's campus.

Dr. Allen regularly visits her grave and contemplates how to build on the foundation she helped provide to him and countless other students.

"Her impact is endless," he said. "Her last will and testament speak to her legacy and values. Every semester, we hear from the (university) president reminding us of who she was and how much she meant to us.

"She demanded excellence and was able to train United Methodist ministers. She was always dedicated to critical thinking and what she could do for the lives of others around her."

Yes, as Dr. McClellan noted, the ripples of Bethune's well-lived life continue today and will last well into the future.

"Mahalia Jackson sang a song that epitomized the life that she lived: To move on up a little higher," she said.

"So, what now?! May the work she's done speak for her. What better place for her statue to stand as she continues to leave us hope."

Joe Henderson is News Content Editor for

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