On February 26, 1955, at the Brotherhood Luncheon held in her honor, Mrs. Mary McLeod Bethune delivered the last speech she would ever give. In that speech, she poignantly stated, “I have been the dreamer, but oh how wonderfully you have interpreted my dreams.” The event, held at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C., was meant to honor Mrs. Bethune, but she used it as an opportunity to honor the women that helped make her dreams a reality.
Mrs. Bethune knew her grand visions could not be accomplished alone. Realizing the value of friendship and building a diverse base of acquaintances, she surrounded herself with other like-minded women who were willing to sacrifice for the rights of all people. Working with dear friends like First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and joining with colleagues around the United States and the world, these women made change happen in their own time.
However, Mrs. Bethune knew it would take more than a lifetime to accomplish all of her goals.
Mrs. Bethune saw the future in the thousands of women of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), an organization which she founded in 1935 to further the rights of African American women. Relying on trusted confidants like Dr. Dorothy B. Ferebee and seeing promise and talent in women like Mrs. Vivian Carter Mason and Dr. Dorothy I. Height, Mrs. Bethune knew these women would carry the torch for decades to come.
And so they did.
Today, the NCNW continues the work Mrs. Bethune started almost 80 years ago, and the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site in Washington, D.C. shares and celebrates her incredible teachings and remarkable legacy. Earlier this month, on March 8, 2014, the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site celebrated some of the extraordinary women who made Mrs. Bethune’s dreams a reality.
The program kicked off with an introduction by educator Melissa Green. She spoke of Mrs. Bethune’s “My Last Will and Testament,” and how Mrs. Bethune stated, “I leave you, finally, a responsibility to our young people.” Ms. Green expounded on how teachers, park rangers, and other educators are preparing young women to carry the torch “higher and higher and higher.” She showcased the Teacher-Ranger-Teacher program she helped develop with the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site to help students explore their nation’s heritage and treasures. Ms. Green also explained how educators are utilizing new technologies such as mobile apps and digital exhibits to connect young people to new places and ideas without ever having to leave the classroom.
Following Ms. Green’s introduction, Janice Ferebee, grand-niece of former NCNW President Dr. Ferebee, gave an engaging talk about how her great-aunt supported and continued Mrs. Bethune’s initiatives. As Mrs. Bethune’s closest confident, Dr. Ferebee was more than able to carry on her legacy. Ms. Ferebee explained how her aunt put Mrs. Bethune’s “Last Will and Testament” into real action and how she spent her entire life supporting women’s rights and civil rights, with a drive and endurance much like Mrs. Bethune.
It was more than a treat to learn about Dr. Ferebee from a close relative. By the end of Ms. Ferebee’s lecture, it was like the audience had known Dr. Ferebee all along.
The program closed with a living history performance by Kate Campbell Stevenson as Eleanor Roosevelt. Mrs. Bethune and Mrs. Roosevelt were lifelong friends who shared a passion for social justice. Mrs. Roosevelt was present when Mrs. Bethune purchased the Council House in 1943 and continued to support the NCNW long after Mrs. Bethune passed away.
Ms. Stevenson’s performance transported the audience back in time through song and theatrics, and made history truly come alive.
All of these women, along with Mrs. Bethune, swam against the current of their time to break through the cult of domesticity to become part of the history books. At every turn these women were told, “No you can’t,” which only emboldened their spirits to say, “YES WE CAN!”
It is more than an honor to celebrate these women of character, courage, and commitment this month and year-round.
Samantha Christine has been a park ranger with the National Park Service for nearly three years. She’s worked at various national parks in the D.C. area, including Glen Echo Park/Clara Barton National Historic Site, Arlington House, Robert E. Lee Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery, and currently, the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site. She describes herself as a history nerd who will read anything by Doris Kearns Goodwin, an avid runner, and a bird watcher (she says D.C. is a migratory hub!).