Keepers of the Dream
As Bethune-Cookman College celebrates 100 years, school officials, alumni say mission has not changed
By Kendra Hamilton
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.
Mary McLeod Bethune founded Bethune-Cookman College 100 years ago with five little girls and $1.50. Over the past month or so, college officials needed every bit of her determination — and a few dollars more — to keep their centennial activities on track after surviving a historic three strikes and one near-miss by hurricanes in late summer.
“Charlie, Frances, Jeanne all hit the center of the state and all had some effect on the college,” says Sumner Hutcheson III, vice president for college advancement at BCC. The whole college community is thankful there were no injuries among the students, Hutcheson adds, but cancelled classes, power outages, wind damage and dorm closures disrupted the academic schedule.
“And there was major damage to the foundry that was preparing the statue of Mary McLeod Bethune — the roof came off during Charlie, and the machinery was damaged. So as a consequence, we’re not going to be able to have that unveiling until 2005,” Hutcheson explains.
But the sheets of rain didn’t appear to dampen the spirits of the extended BCC community as they prepared for Oct. 4 — the day of the Founder’s Day convocation, dedicated to Bethune-Cookman’s four presidents.
Dr. Robert Williams had been looking forward to the date. A former music department chair, who retired after 30 years with the college, Williams stepped back into an active role in order to head up the centennial committee.
“We’re lucky to have had only four presidents” before the current campus leader, Dr. Trudie Kibbe Reed, who was wooed recently from a six-year tenure at Philander-Smith College, says Williams. “And we’re especially lucky to have the presidents and family members of all of those presidents represented,” he adds.
Dr. Oswald P. Bronson Sr., who prefers the term “chief servant” to president, was anticipating the date as well. “I’m so proud to be a part of this legacy,” says Bronson, who enrolled in 1944 as a student and returned as president in 1975.
“This school started with five little girls, a dollar-and-a-half and faith, using boxes for desks and blackberry juice for ink. When the Ku Klux Klan came to the campus to burn it down, Mary McLeod Bethune brought the students out to sing and they sang so beautifully that the Klan rode away. The key notes have always been faith, determination and an excellence that inspires others,” Bronson adds.
Willie Mae Ashley, an alumna who entered in 1942, has also been looking forward to the date. Ashley grew up in nearby Fernandino Beach, attending BCC when it was still a two-year normal school, “a religious kind of school, with weekly chapel and community meetings, where everyone knew everybody,” she says. Including President Bethune.
“Mrs. Bethune could call you by your first name and your last name — she seemed to know everybody,” Ashley says. “Let me not kid you by saying that at that point as freshmen and sophomores we saw and knew what we later saw and knew. But she wasn’t an in-office person. She was always around strolling the campus,” walking with that air of authority and dignity.
“And somehow, her vision has gotten into the hearts and minds of the people who followed her to the extent that the purpose and goals of the school have not changed — even after all these years,” she adds.
You’ll get no argument on that assessment from Dr. Sheila Flemming, dean of the school of social sciences, professor of history at the college and author of The Answered Prayer to a Dream: Bethune-Cookman College, 1904-1994.
“There are lots of women I admire,” Flemming says, noting names like Dorothy Height, Marian Wright Edelman and Hillary Clinton. “But none of them faced the same kind of obstacles as Mary McLeod Bethune. When you think about being a Black woman born in 1875 and having all the challenges of skin color and gender, I can think of no other women who could do all the things she’s done. She’s my ‘shero.'”
Hutcheson, the BCC vice president, notes that convocation won’t just be like a homecoming, attracting current and former presidents, faculty and students — it, in effect, will be homecoming, with those festivities scheduled to begin during the same week.
“I’m an alum of Bethune-Cookman College, and I feel blessed to have this opportunity,” Hutcheson adds. “In fact, my father was a Bethune-Cookman College attendee — he was on the school’s first football team. So it’s pretty exciting to bring out the community for this event.
“During Mrs. Bethune’s time, this was the only place in the city of Daytona Beach where Whites and Blacks could sit in the same room and enjoy what she called ‘gems from students’ — their recitations and songs. This is a person who was able to bring Black people and White together. And that’s how we became, in the 1970s, one of first UNCF (United Negro College Fund) schools to graduate a White person.”
Hutcheson says that events like the centennial help to remind the community of that fact and adds, “We are her dream keepers.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com