Happy International Women’s Month! I have been struggling to decide how I should celebrate the month on the blog in a meaningful way and as they often do, my children provided me the answer without intending to do so.
This morning, my daughter informed me that she wants to go to college to “learn how to sew, knit and cook” …and I am perfectly fine with that. I can see the tips of your ears turning red right now. I can almost see the steam rising off of your heads. What! Spend all that money to go to college to become some stay at home cook who darns socks? Heaven forbid! Just wait, my friend. It’s not as bad as that.
“You mean Bethune-Cookman University?” I asked.
“Yes! Bethune-Cookman,” she grinned. Then she settled back in her seat and watched the rain softly beat the windows of our car. “They teach you how to sew, cook and knit. Isn’t that cool?”
I’m the antithesis of crafty. Nothing about sewing or knitting sounds “cool” to me. But my baby is into that stuff, which means I have to put on a mask for her sake, just like I have to pretend I love trains for Stone or My Little Pony for Nadjah. I happen to like mermaids, so Liya and I have a grand time talking about them. The rest of the crew is missing out.
“Yes: that’s pretty cool. Would you like to visit the university one day?”
Aya’s face broke into a wide, toothy grin. “I’d love to!”
As I watched her from my rearview mirror, I could see the wheels in her head turning. Soon, she’d be in class telling all her little friends about how her mom and she would be going on a road trip – probably this summer – so she could see the school Mrs. Mary McCleod built. None of this has been discussed with me, of course.
I won’t lie: A small part of me is disappointed that she doesn’t want to get into science or computer aided drafting or any sort of 21st tech pursuit that will net her an easy six figure salary. But the honest truth is that we are always going to need people to sew, cook and knit. Obviously, Bethune-Cookman University most likely doesn’t over these as courses anymore. These were the foundations the school Mary McLeod began her Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls in 1905 on. Although the school’s beginnings were humble, McLeod Bethune had high standards for her students:
“The rigorous curriculum had the girls rise at 5:30 a.m. for Bible Study. The classes in home economics and industrial skills such as dressmaking, millinery, cooking, and other crafts emphasized a life of self-sufficiency for them as women.”
In the early days, students made their own ink from elderberry juice and pencils from burned wood. The students seats and desks were made from converted crates housed in a rented home that served as the school. She began with 6 students and within a year, that number swelled to 30. The success of Black church was instrumental in her early success, and in time, Mary McLeod Bethune would go on to form alliances with some of America’s most influential businessmen and women, including J.D. Rockefeller, James Gamble and the Roosevelts. Through their financial support and fundraising efforts, she was able to expand her school. Soon Bethune added science and business courses, then high school-level courses of math, English, and foreign languages.
Mary McLeod Bethune was the daughter of former slaves. She herself began working in the fields at age 5 until education radically changed her life. Her passion for learning took her to heights that few Black women at that time could dream of. She was one of the few women (Black, white or otherwise) to be the president of a college in the 1920’s and beyond. She would later be appointed as an advisor to President Roosevelt. She was on the boards of numerous women’s rights and education organizations. She fought tirelessly for the rights of all children to have a quality education, and was an advocate for Black to take pride in and share their accomplishments. It was essential if they were to be seen as equal not only in the eyes of the American (white) majority, but in their own view as well.
“If our people are to fight their way up out of bondage we must arm them with the sword and the shield and buckler of pride – belief in themselves and their possibilities, based upon a sure knowledge of the achievements of the past.”
“Not only the Negro child but children of all races should read and know of the achievements, accomplishments and deeds of the Negro. World peace and brotherhood are based on a common understanding of the contributions and cultures of all races and creeds.”
Mary McLeod Bethune was an extraordinary and resourceful woman – truly remarkable. It was her great faith that buoyed her in the most trying of times. And if my daughter wants to go to her school to learn how to sew, cook and knit, I can’t find fault with that, because I know she will come out with knowledge, skills and an experience that reaches far beyond that. If the school still holds to McLeod Bethune’s original standards, Aya will emerge from their halls as a true entrepreneur and inventive woman. I doubt she will end up merely mending anyone’s socks for a pittance.