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By Ashley Robertson Preston, Howard University

When I first landed an internship as an archives technician at the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House-National Historic Site – the D.C. home of the woman who founded Bethune-Cookman University – I didn’t see a strong connection between the college founder’s life and the rest of the African diaspora.

Educator Mary McLeod Bethune regularly wrote of her travels abroad.
Robert Abbott Sengstacke via Getty Images

Many of the requests I got from researchers were for records of Bethune’s work within what is known as FDR’s “Black Cabinet,” an unofficial Black advisory group that helped raise awareness of issues affecting Black America. Or her role as the founder of the National Council of Negro Women. Or her overall involvement in Washington, D.C., as a resident of Logan Circle, where she welcomed people from around the world to the NCNW headquarters.

But in the process of preserving the records and retrieving them for scholars, I soon came to see Bethune in a different light.

By reading her letters, diary entries and notes from various meetings, I noticed that Bethune was awarded honors in Haiti and Liberia. I decided to take a closer look at her work abroad for my dissertation, and I found that she was more connected to the diaspora than I and many others had thought.

That experience ultimately laid the foundation for my 2023 book, “Mary McLeod Bethune The Pan-Africanist.”

Pan-Africanism, according to Nigerian historian P. Olisanwuche Esedebe, is a “political and cultural phenomenon which regards Africa, Africans and African descendants abroad as a unit.”

“It seeks to regenerate and unify Africa and promote a feeling of oneness among the people of the African world,” Esedebe wrote. “It glorifies the African past and inculcates pride in African values.”

Bethune embodied ideals of Pan-Africanism throughout the course of her life.

A global view

This much is evident from a 1926 speech she gave as president of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs at the organization’s annual convention. In that speech, she challenged Black women to unify with people of African descent throughout the world.

Specifically, she stated:

We must make this national body of colored women not merely a national influence, but a significant link between peoples of color throughout the world._

African identity

Bethune’s story begins in Mayesville, South Carolina, where she was born to formerly enslaved parents.

She was taught by her family that her roots were in Africa. Throughout her life she spoke about how her mother descended from a royal matriarchy.

She lived in South Carolina until she went to Scotia Seminary – now known as Barber-Scotia College – and graduated in 1893. Thereafter she attended Moody Bible Institute and graduated in 1895. Her training prepared her to become a missionary.

Mary McLeod Bethune rose to become one of the most influential Black women of the 20th century. In 1904, she founded a small school for girls in Daytona Beach, Florida. That school later became Bethune-Cookman University.

While living in Washington, D.C., where she moved to work with the Roosevelt administration and National Council of Negro Women, she worked alongside Carter G. Woodson, the founder of what we now know to be Black History Month, during her time as president of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History.

In 1935, Bethune founded the National Council of Negro Women, an “organization of organizations” to unify African American women’s organizations under one major umbrella.

The Mary McLeod Bethune Council House-National Historic Site was the first headquarters of the organization. It was purchased by the National Park Service in 1994.

The ‘First Lady of Negro America’

As I pored through the archives, I learned about Bethune’s role as the first African American woman to head a federal agency, which she did as director of the Division of Negro Affairs with the National Youth Administration. I learned how she was able to secure jobs and critical educational funding for African Americans during the Great Depression.

She also worked closely with Eleanor Roosevelt to fight for the inclusion of African American women during World War II.

Two women in military uniforms speak to a woman in civilian clothes.
American educator and activist Mary McLeod Bethune, right, speaks with two members of the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps in 1942.
Bettmann via Getty Images

It soon became apparent why Ebony magazine proclaimed her in 1949 as the “First Lady of Negro America.”

Haiti’s highest honor

When she traveled to Haiti in 1949 – where she was awarded the Haitian Medal of Honor and Merit, Haiti’s highest honor at the time – she visited orphanages, churches and historic sites to understand the needs of the people and the richness of the culture.

Bethune was often seen wearing her Haitian medal proudly. She wrote about her travels in The Chicago Defender, a national Black newspaper.

She called for support for Haitian women’s suffrage. She also called for members of the National Council of Negro Women to assist with the building of orphanages in the country and actively raised money to do so.

As I continued to conduct research in the archives, I found that Bethune had worked to create solidarity between people of African descent much of her life. She traveled to places – including Cuba in 1930, Bermuda in 1931, Canada in 1945 and 1954, the Bahamas in 1953 – forging relationships throughout the African diaspora.

As a daughter of Africa

In her writings, Bethune referred to Africa as her homeland. She saw herself as a daughter of the continent. Whether it was at the 1945 founding of the United Nations, where she called for an end to colonization, or in the White House, where she pushed for an end to poll taxes for Africans Americans, the goal of freedom was always at the forefront for her.

In 1952, she received the Star of Africa during her trip to Liberia. Created in 1920, the star was one Liberia’s highest honors and awarded to individuals who rendered distinguished service to the country or to Africa overall. This was a significant honor, and she did not take it lightly. During the trip, she met with women’s groups and visited local schools. She also attended the lavish inaugural celebration for President William V.S. Tubman.

The trip held special meaning for Bethune, particularly since she had attempted to travel to Africa as a missionary at the age of 20 and was told by the missionary society that she could not do so because she was Black.

At 76, her dream finally came true. In her recap of the trip, she stated: “I was thrilled to set foot in this soil of Africa which I have so long dreamed of visiting – of returning to my homeland.”

Bethune’s understanding of her personal connection to the continent and its people is what inspired her to challenge others to do the same. Although she was acknowledged as “First Lady of Negro America,” perhaps it is time to acknowledge her as “First Lady of the African Diaspora” as well.The Conversation

Ashley Robertson Preston, Assistant Professor of History, Howard University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.