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Many years ago, I became part of the founding faculty at a new school named in memory of a marvelous Black educator, suffragist, and civil rights advocate, Mary McLeod Bethune. Our K-6 school was on the West Side of Chicago and the student population was 98% African-American. We were thrilled to have entirely NEW books and desks, along with chalkboards that were green, not black. Part of the excitement of opening the school was that it was named after a prominent African-American, unusual in the array of school names at the time. My sixth-grade students joined me in learning about Mary’s life and work as we helped prepare for the school’s opening ceremony.
By describing some of the things we did—some actually that you, our readers, and your children/grandchildren could enjoy— I hope to help you get acquainted with a noble woman and perhaps make her a more memorable person.
Some highlights of her life between 1875 and 1955 include that she:
We also got to decorate the walls of the school with life-size cutouts of sixth graders dressed in school clothes. The kids made them as an Art project by tracing themselves on sheets of butcher paper, painting on colorful school clothes, and cutting them out with care. Then we stuck them on walls throughout the hallways with small circles of duct tape. Mary would have been proud of their attention to detail, industry and creativity. In addition, a small committee used an opaque projector, a common machine from that era, in order to trace and color a large picture of Mary onto butcher paper to hang on our classroom wall.My sixth graders also wrote paragraphs about why they thought it was a good idea to name the school after Mrs. Bethune. We found that some of her famous quotes were inspirational, including “The whole world opened to me when I learned to read,” and “Knowledge is the prime need of the hour,” as well as “Cease to be a drudge, seek to be an artist.” My eleven-and twelve-year-olds were particularly glad that Mary McLeod Bethune was Black and her hard work and ingenuity had brought her into leadership roles for the entire United States.
We were all well-prepared to enjoy the opening ceremony on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Families, friends, and dignitaries from the Chicago Public Schools headquarters downtown came to shake hands with founding principal Emmerine Clarkston, hear speeches, listen to students sing the beautiful “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and roam the halls to visit classrooms during the Open House.
I hope you will take some time out to open your house and heart and add Mary McLeod Bethune to your list of famous Americans you know and admire. Here are several links that can help you learn about Mary and share some activities that will help make her more memorable for your family.
Submitted by Greta Nagel, PhD
MOTAL President and CEO
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