Do You Know (this) Mary?

I must tell you about the first African American woman to establish a four-year institution of higher learning. When I tell you her name, it is not likely you will recognize it. But in heaven she will be as famous as Beth Moore. She was the first African American woman to hold a high-level government directorship. She advised three American presidents and, between 1933 and 1945, according to one of her biographers, she was “arguably the most powerful African-American person in the United States.”

Her parents were slaves; her mother’s faith and piety were extraordinary and her father’s faith was consistent. She grew up loved, and as a child she was given a New Testament to hold in church. But because she was black, education was not part of her childhood. Then the Presbyterian Board for Freedmen opened a school for children in Maysville, South Carolina, and she attended that school until she was about twelve, when she had to return to the cotton fields. Miracle of miracles, someone in far-off Denver sensed a whisper from God to give money to a child with potential, and our then-unknown woman was selected to attend Scotia Seminary in Concord, North Carolina. Her response? “I pulled my cotton sack off, got down on my knees, clasped my hands, and turned my eyes upward and thanked God for the chance that had come.” Many neighbors saw her off to Scotia.

At Scotia, she entered a brick building for the first time, climbed stairs for the first time, and for the first time, had teachers who were African American. When she finished, she attended a school that later became Moody Bible Institute, where she experienced both a mighty baptism of the Holy Spirit and a calling to be a missionary to Africa. But the Presbyterians turned her down because they had no places for an African American female missionary.

So she went south and famously taught young African Americans; at one point, she had more than one thousand children in her Sunday school program. This work expanded her horizons and, when she had the opportunity to move to Daytona Beach, Florida, to establish a college, she jumped on it. Her school was called the Daytona Educational and Industrial School for Negro Girls, where in 1904 her focus was evangelistic, and educational, and geared toward social reform. When her school expanded into Bethune College, her curriculum was Bible, industry, and English. Today it is called Bethune-Cookman.

In 1936 she reflected on her life and her situation, as well as the way Christianity worked in the United States:

The Negro must go to a separate church even though he claims to be of the same denomination as whites. He is not allowed to sing, in unison with the white man, the grand old hymns of Calvin, the Wesleys—the triumphant songs of Christ and eternal glory. When at last he is called to his final resting place on earth even his ashes are not allowed to mingle with those of his white brother, but are borne away to some remote place where the white man is not even reminded that this Negro ever lived. Judging from all that has preceded the Negro in death, it looks as if he has been prepared for a heaven, separate from the one to which the white man feels he alone is fit to inhabit.

She experienced the utter violation of dignity that white folks used against African Americans, but that didn’t stop her. She reversed the thunder of racism by conquering her enemies with love, with industry, with strategy, and with an educational system designed for the uplifting of women of all ethnicities but especially African Americans. We, and I say this bitterly, returned the favor by not even knowing her name.

Mary McLeod Bethune will be recognized in Heaven, and she will see—and maybe even more, white people will see—a Heaven not drawn into segregated churches, communities, and cemeteries. No, Heaven will be a fellowship of all races who will be given by God the dignity due each son and daughter. When the cemeteries open their graves at the trumpet of the Lion of Judah, both communities and churches will experience new-creation community—and it will be a fellowship for all and including all.

Heaven will at least (while surely far more than this) be a reconciliation of all. Everyone will at least be neighbors and neighborly. Everyone, to borrow words from Martin Luther King, Jr., will be “free at last” and will turn toward God in thanksgiving for their eternal freedom.

I tell this story in The Heaven Promise.

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About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.


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