This speech was presented at the National Council of Negro Women
BORN: MAYESVILLE, SOUTH CAROLINA-JULY 10, 1875
DIED: Daytona Beach, Florida-May 18, 1955
AGE: Seventy-nine Years, Ten Months, Eight Days
This is what may appear on the tombstone of America's beloved Mary McLeod Bethune—but the story of the life of this great American will be on the hearts and in the memories of countless millions. She came, she saw, she dedicated, she served. She selected to dedicate her early life to the children in the turpentine sections of Florida. How often have we listened to her tell the story of the beginning of the little school with one dollar and a half—and faith: the little school, which today stands as a million-dollar monument to her dream, her faith, her sacrifice, her devotion, her untiring effort.
Most of us, her close friends, had personal contact with her during the early years, as she depended to a great degree on the help which friends so willingly gave.
This brings to my memory one of the times that she spent some days with me in my little home in Pittsburgh. She needed money for the school. Always the school, never anything else in those early days. We phoned a few friends who had visited the school while vacationing in Florida—who had spent a Sunday afternoon at the school vespers and had heard the students sing. One such friend was Mrs. Ralph Harbison, aged and wealthy. We were invited to lunch, which consisted of a small piece of cold meat, a half pear, bread and butter and hot tea. After eating this meager lunch, during which time Mrs. Bethune told of the needs of the school, Mrs. Harbison excused herself, went upstairs, assisted by her secretary. In a few minutes, the secretary returned with a check for thousand dollars. This we were able to repeat in several homes and at one church. We had wet feet, because it was a rainy week, and we did not dare arrive at the homes in a car or a taxi.
Little personal incidents like these are precious to each and every one of us who touched the intimate life of this great woman. All over the nation women and men who are now secure in good jobs, point to the help given them by Mary McLeod Bethune during the lean years when she was Director of Negro Affairs in the National Youth Administration, 1935 to 1943.
En route to Oakland, California, when she was president of the National Association of Colored Women, at which time I served as chairman of transportation to carry eighteen solid Pullman cars of women to the coast, we were scheduled to hear the noon concert at the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City. Our train was late, but when the Greyhound buses met us, we were told that the organist at the Tabernacle had agreed to give a special concert on our arrival. As we sat next to each other, Mary clasped my hand with a strong grip as the organ pealed forth the strains of "Swanee River." We did not talk ... we could not talk, but the hand clasp said to me, "It is a long way over which we Negro women have come, and it does not yet appear what we shall be." The spiritual depth of this great woman was ever uppermost.
It was following this meeting that she said to a group of us: "we need an organization that will be an overall organization—that will include the Federation, the sororities, church women, the Elks, the Eastern Star, the Courts of Calanthe—all women. This will not be in competition to anything we have now, but will be all inclusive, for all women." Again and again, she said this to me, to countless others. All of us did not visualize her dream, but she saw it, believed in it, and then one day, twenty years ago, a few of us met at the YWCA in New York City and then and there was given birth to this great organization which meets here today.
Its history, its value, its influence, its breadth are well known to you. We are living it today—nationally and internationally.
Mary McLeod Bethune walked in high places, hand in hand with the great in her own land and in other lands. She was a proud woman, with no apology for the color of her skin, nor the poverty of her childhood. She lived with lifted head, squared shoulders—as she looked at the world in passing.
She served as the president of the National Association of Colored Women, president of the Southeastern Federation of Colored Women's Clubs, Director of Negro Affairs, NYA, vice president of the NAACP, vice president of the National Urban League, member of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Foundation, vice president of the National Council of Women of the United States, chairman of the Headquarters Board of the National Association of Colored Women, president of the National Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, member of the Elks, Eastern Star, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, and Iota Phi Lambda Sorority. She was appointed special assistant to the Secretary of War for the selection of candidates for the WAC, 1943; official observer for the Department of State to the Founding Conference of the United Nations in San Francisco, 1945. She was the recipient of many honors for long years of service to her people and to her nation, by founding and directing the destinies of a college, by contributions to many significant causes, and by meriting the confidence of many leaders in the public and governmental life of her country, including President and Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Among her many distinctions were nine honorary degrees—AM, South Carolina State College, 1910; AM, Wilberforce University, 1915; LLD, Lincoln University, Pennsylvania, 1935; LH.D, Bennett College, 1936; M.Sc., Tuskegee Institute, 1938; LLD., Howard University, 1942; LLD, Wiley College, Mar shall, Texas, 1943; LLD, Atlanta University, 1943; and Doctor of Human Relations, Rollins College, Winter Park, Florida, 1949. Among other awards are 21st Spingarn Medal, Frances Drexel Award for distinguished service, Thomas Jefferson Award for outstanding leadership, South Carolina State Award for the most distinguished native of the state, First Hill City Youth Award for distinguished service among youth, and the Haitian Medal of Honor.
Who among us can equal this? One thing is sure: we can aspire and strive to follow in her footsteps. She left us a rich heritage—one to which we can point with pride.
Today, if she were here, she would stand where I am standing, would say: "My women, carry on with the strength that God has given you ... with the wisdom with which He has endowed you. Carry the torch, and hand it on, lighted and clean, to those who follow after."
As printed in Houck, D. W., and Dixon, D. E. (Eds.). (2009). Women and the Civil Rights Movement, 1954-1965. Jackson, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi.