FEATURED AUTHOR: Ayana D. King on Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune

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Just to be clear, I come from an extremely talented family. The Smiths of native Ecorse, Michigan are musicians, authors, DJs, scholars, exceptional soldiers and political pioneers to name a few of our accolades. My baby sister is no exception. Ayana D. King (Smith) is as passionate about her writing as she is about her culture and her gender. You try telling my sister that women are inferior if you want to; just wait until I leave the room. I’d rather not stick around for the ensuing carnage.

For Black History month, Ayana wrote a phenomenal article on Mary McLeod Bethune  for a supposed respectable Christian magazine, that shall not be named. Initially, she was informed by the magazine’s editor that her article had been chosen and “green-lit” for February’s showcase. Then…the principles read the article. It was immediately rejected.

Today, my sister makes a guest appearance on my blog. Well done young lady.


Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune: Put some respect on her name.

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Photo:Wikipedia

It may only be February, but I think it’s safe to say black women are WINNING in 2018. Whispers of California Senator Kamala Harris’ run for the White House in 2020 are already being met with hallelujahs, black actresses, writers, directors and producers are forcing Hollywood to confront its role in the degradation of black women in film; and let’s not forget about how black women swooped in and saved Alabama from Roy Moore. Like I said – winning.  But here’s the thing – black women have been winning for a LONG time. Before Shirley Chisolm, Rosa Parks, Hattie McDaniel, Oprah, and so many other black (s)heroes, there was Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, one of the most influential African American women in U.S. history.

Bethune was born in Mayesville, South Carolina in 1875. She was the fifteenth of 17 children; imagine that! Her parents had been enslaved and Bethune’s father, in order to marry her mother, had to purchase her from a nearby plantation. Bethune was the first in her family to be born free. She was also the first in her family to attend school at seven years old. Don’t let that statement miss you. You have to remember the times Mary and her family were living in. This was on the heels of the Reconstruction period (1865-1877) and although black folks had technically been emancipated, they certainly weren’t free. In fact, both Bethune’s mother and father continued to work for their former owners after the Civil War ended. Many white southerners were bitter about having to forfeit their property, (i.e., living, breathing, human beings) and weren’t eager to see black folks educated. The vast majority of slaves were illiterate. See, many slave owners forbid the enslaved to read, and learning in secret could easily cost them their lives. So, when a mission school was established in Mayesville by a black educator (Emma Wilson) in 1882, it was a big deal Mary’s parents had allowed her to attend.

Even as a little girl, Mary was smart and determined. She made the five-mile trek to the mission school for four years, bringing everything she’d learned back to her parents and siblings. Bethune excelled academically, and eventually went on to attend Moody Theological Institute, in Chicago. After graduation, she’d had high hopes of travelling to Africa as a missionary, but black women couldn’t just be missionaries in the 1900’s – not in America. She was disappointed, and no doubt angry, but she reasoned Americans needed Jesus just as badly as Africans did. So, in 1904 with a $1.50 and a whole lot of faith, Bethune opened the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls, a parochial, nondenominational boarding school, which would later become Bethune-Cookman University, in Daytona Beach Florida. Bethune’s was the only school for black girls in the area and it quickly became apparent she’d need to expand if she was to continue to educate her people. She was a resourceful business woman and although her coins were scarce, she had friends with money, power and influence. Among her supporters were James Gamble (Proctor & Gamble Family), John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and Madam C.J. Walker. Of course, not everyone was excited about black folks being educated, advancing in society and teaching their youth about the many accomplishments of black people world-wide. Of course not. But when the Ku Klux Klan began making threats on her life, Mary was not deterred. In fact, she seemed more determined than ever to fight for equality.

Bethune wasn’t only an educator, she was also a social activist, bent on disrupting a prevailing system of inequality and blatant disregard for black lives. Understand, the fight for equality, for dignity and respect, had been going on long before Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 – true story. Mary was tired, like many black folks in the South, of being treated like she was still on the plantation, bound by laws which kept her people subservient, while at the same time providing protection for whites, who routinely harassed, beat, maimed and even killed black men, women and children over any number of offenses. Hadn’t she been born free? Hadn’t her parents purchased all fourteen of her older siblings? In 1920, after women had just won the right to vote, Bethune organized a voter registration campaign–a “Rock the Vote” of her era, if you will–which helped Daytona Beach open its first public high school for black students. She didn’t stop there. Bethune went on to lobby for anti-lynching laws, prison reform and equal rights under the constitution. She was marching for civil rights more than a quarter century before the bus boycotts of Alabama.

Bethune was a natural leader. She’d been the founder and president of a number of organizations, aimed at uplifting and educating black women, and established the National Council of Negro Women (still in existence today), in 1935. The council’s goal was to unify various groups and ensure their opinions, values and ideals were consistent. That same year, she was appointed by Franklin D. Roosevelt to oversee the National Youth Administration, an agency established under Roosevelt’s New Deal, designed to help young people in the black community find employment through relief work and job-training programs. Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune was the first black woman to oversee a federal agency.

Bethune Pic
Photo: Flickr

We hear a lot about “influencers” these days and we usually associate them with social media. You know them by their pages; they usually have tons of followers, and a million comments on even the most mundane posts. But in the early 1900’s, who would have dreamed we’d have the ability to reach people around the globe, sharing our thoughts while impacting theirs? Yet, that’s exactly what Mary did over the span of her lifetime. She mastered the art of persuasion and changed the course of  history for generations of black folks in the process. In 1927, Pope Pius XI hosted her at the Vatican; in 1949, the people of Haiti awarded Bethune the Medal of Honor and Merit, Haiti’s highest distinction; she was given unprecedented access to the White House, advising on race relations under Presidents Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover; and she wrote for the Washington Post. That’s influence. We can also thank Bethune for the work she did with Planned Parenthood, the American Red Cross, the N.A.A.C.P, and Tuskegee Institute, where she was instrumental in establishing the famed aviation program for black pilots during WWII. Her effect spread far and wide. After Bethune’s death, May 18, 1955, there were so many people who came to pay their respects, Daytona Beach officials, for the first time, ignored laws banning blacks and whites from lodging in the same location, and integrated hotels for out-of-towners in attendance.

February is Black History Month. But let’s not limit our learning about African American achievements to the shortest month of the year. Instead, let’s honor Bethune’s legacy by educating ourselves and others, remembering nearly every modern accomplishment made by African-Americans can be linked to the work she did on our behalf. You may not learn these lessons in the classroom – be encouraged to seek them out anyhow. Dr. Bethune’s faith, and her many contributions to society, have made America better.

Letter To My Ancestors

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2/11/2015

To: Ancestors of the Black Race

From: Generation X – Rep. Ennis Smith

Subject: Formal Apology

Dear Grandmothers and Grandfathers of generations past,

Somewhere in the shadows of passing time, we lost sight of who we are. We forgot about the injustices and atrocities you faced daily, just to survive. While other races of people thrived under normal conditions and circumstances of the times they were born into, you were never given a truly fair handshake. You were constantly belittled, cheated, mocked, and killed over the pursuits of basic human rights deservedly given to other races of this great country, but fervently denied you as if it were a God written law to do so. But I digress. This is not a letter of condemnation of those who treated you as less than human. Only God Almighty can, and will, judge the deeds and hearts of men. No, elders this letter is about us – Generation X.

Grandparents, you were slaves who overcame unspeakable horrors. History teaches us that we were a proud race of kings and queens who once dwelled in a foreign land, but were forcibly stripped away to be made the equivalent of beasts-of- burden, to be used and abused, at the discretion of others. Oppressors blotted out the history and rich culture of our people for generations. Our natural spirit was broken; our brave hearts were subdued; our pride was crushed until we were demoralized mentally. Eventually, our people forgot about their rich heritage. Generations no longer remembered what it meant to be a community, further dividing us. But we were never completely destroyed. Like the Israelites of biblical times, a remnant of strength always endured. With each new generation, strength was preserved.

Grandmothers, you were raped and maimed; you were degraded and humiliated; you were violated in ways no black man can ever truly understand. Yet, you persevered throughout time. Grandfathers, you were beaten and broken like livestock; you were brainwashed and subjected to humilities no black woman can comprehend. Your strength of character was all but erased. Still, you endured the countless tests of time. Barriers were broken little by little, thanks to your unwillingness to concede, Grandparents.

Slavery was abolished, only to make way for social injustices to take root. Once again, you had to endure the atrocities of mankind. You were scourged; you were mocked; killed; and unfairly treated for generations more. But, just as it was in the past, a remnant of fighters endured. Some of you stood up to oppression, demanding equal human rights amid the onslaught of opposition. With your sacrifice and by your stripes, others among you joined the cause. Many of you were martyred throughout the passing generations, while some of you lived to see small victories inch through the crevices of passing time. Names like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks ascended into the stuff of legend, sparking grand movements toward equality for our people. Over time, we once again became a proud race destined to reclaim greatness and rebuild what was once lost.

But, something changed. Time marches on and through the latter generations, our parents slowly forgot about your sacrifices. Your stripes became unimportant to so many of us. We grew content to be classified as second-rate citizens of a nation that could care less about our true history. We grew lazy and weary of struggles. We looked toward the comforts of distractions to appease our ever growing lusts for personal gain. We finally saw the birth of a generation hell-bent on reversing everything you had worked and sacrificed for.

On behalf of an ungrateful generation, I apologize for what we have become, and for what we continue to perpetuate within our own communities and families, Grandparents. What does it say of us as a people, when we put more emphasis on the degradation of our women, than we do on the responsible rearing of our children? How can we be okay with an alarming number of our young black men more likely to go to prison for destructive tendencies, than to start a business that might benefit a community for future generations? When did it become popular to glorify terms like ‘nigger’, ‘coon’, and ‘bitch’; terms that historically insulted our people; terms you fought to eradicate from our personal vocabularies? Why is it so hard to convince our children to strive toward an education, as a means of escaping their circumstances? Where do we turn to change course, from the downward slide our people are into?

Generation X was born on the cusp of the technology revolution. Our children have a wealth of knowledge literally at their fingertips, today. Yet, our race is still plagued by some of the same hurdles of poverty, gentrification, low-education and division you faced centuries ago. It seems that the boom of technology does not automatically translate into a better way of life for all people of our race. Yes, there are positive strides. We are in an age where black folks have better opportunities to chase after the coveted American Dream, than ever before. But, we first have to want better. We have to desire and hunger for better, choosing not to settle for less than what we can become.

We were a proud race of kings and queens in a foreign land, Grandparents. Generation X forgot that. Instead, we put our trust in bubble gum music, comedy shows, and video games. In so doing, we continue to fail at teaching our own children and grandchildren the importance of who you were and what you fought and died for. But…just like in generations past, there is a remnant. Your legacy lives on deep rooted within our lines. And I believe the day will come, when we will make you proud of us, again.