One of the most inspiring stories from Black History I’ve profiled is about educator Mary McLeod Bethune. To hear the breadth of her narrative, I recommend the chapter I wrote about her in my book Great Women in American History, and my recent podcast at Anchor.fm/rebeccapricejanney.
All of us have critical experiences, sometimes moments, in our childhood that help shine the path to our future. I’d like to share with you such a story from Mrs. Bethune’s girlhood.
Mary McLeod was born on July 10, 1875 in Mayesville, South Carolina to Samuel and Patsy McLeod, former slaves who owned a cotton farm. The couple had seventeen children. Mary, born ten years after the Civil War, was number fifteen. Her mother did washing and ironing for her former master Ben Wilson’s family, and Mary liked to tag along during the deliveries; this meant having a morning off from pulling weeds in the cotton field.
One day when Mary was nine and her mother went inside for the few cents doing the Wilsons’ clothes brought in, Mary wandered over to a magical-looking children’s playhouse and peeked inside. Two white girls about her age sat among an impressive collection of dolls, furniture, and china dishes. One of them called out, “Hello Mary! Do you want to come in?” Of course she did. She wasn’t admitted to such circles every day.
“Let’s play we’re keeping house. You can watch the baby while I have tea with my friend.” She shoved a doll toward Mary, who held the beautiful object to her breast. The next minute she gave a jolt when the little girl scolded her for not making the baby stop crying. “It’s ruining my tea!”
Mary started walking the doll around the room when the sight of a book captivated her, and she picked it up in awe. Her parents had just one book, a Bible, but no one could read it. To have another book just lying around carelessly was more than she could fathom. Unexpectedly the white girl swooped down upon her and grabbed it. “Put that down! You don’t know how to read.”
Mary tingled with shame. On the way back to her family’s farm she wondered why whites had all kinds of nice things and got to boss everyone around. Why could they read while so many blacks were kept in a state of ignorance? She concluded the inequality must have something to do with reading and education, so Mary said a prayer. “Dear Lord, I don’t t think we’re so fee. Help me to get educated.” Smiling to herself she decided, “I’m going to learn to read!” At home she asked her father’s permission to go to school, but he told her somberly, “There isn’t any school.”
One day, however, a black woman in city clothes, Miss Emma Wilson, came to the McLeod cabin. She explained that the Mission Board of the Presbyterian Church had sent her to get a school going in Mayesville for black children. She hoped that starting classes after the cotton-picking season would attract more scholars. Sam and Patsy looked at each other, smiled, and said, “We can spare this one.”
Young Mary was beside herself. “I’m gonna read? You mean I’m gonna read, Miss Wilson?”
As the woman smiled, the little girl murmured “Thank you, Ma’am.” Then she sank to her knees and folded her hands. “Thank you, God, for delivering me.”
This was just the beginning of a long and illustrious career.