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A Look Back At Mary McLeod Bethune's Life As Bethune Cookman University Looks To The Future

Bethune Cookman University photo by: Talia Blake/WMFE
Bethune Cookman University photo by: Talia Blake/WMFE

Mary McLeod Bethune is the first African-American to have a state-commissioned statue at the National Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C. She will replace Edmund Kirby Smith to represent Florida. But, as Florida prepares to honor Bethune with a statue, the college that bears her name is still facing financial turmoil. 

90.7’s Talia Blake visited the school for a look back  at Bethune’s life and legacy as the university tries to clean up its act.

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The office of BCU's President Brent Chrite is located in White Hall. photo by: Talia Blake[/caption]

Brent Chrite, President of Bethune Cookman University , can see Mary McLeod Bethune’s grave site from his office window.

Financial problems at the university go back several years but, when Chrite took over last July, he inherited a crisis. BCU had suffered five consecutive years of losses, there was a federal investigation into a $306 million student housing project, and the university’s accreditation agency had put them on probation. Chrite was anticipating a $22 million operating deficit.  "And that was pretty scary," he said.

Now, he says they’re making good progress with new policies, like aligning expenses with revenues. "There are important lessons that need to be learned from this and I'm excited about the standards we’re creating," said Chrite. By February, the operating deficit was under $8 million. The Florida legislature approved $17.3 million in recurring annual support for the university. 

Chrite is optimistic about getting BCU back in the black before he has to submit a report to the accrediting agency, The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. "And I hope that as the state of Florida and the country affirms her, that we will see her institution similarly be resurrected."

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Mary McLeod Bethune (via Washington Area Spark/Filezilla)[/caption]

Mary McLeod Bethune was the 15th child out of 17 to be born to Sam and Patsy McLeod in South Carolina, and she was the first child to be born free in her family. Author Nancy Long, who wrote about Mary and was a professor at BCU herself, said Mary taught herself how to read at a young age at a time when education was limited. "And so this little girl at the age of six years old, walked five miles to and from Maysville in order to get her education, and that just gives you an example of how strong minded she was," said Long.

She said education remained important in Mary’s life. In 1904, after moving to Daytona Beach, Mary started her first school. "She rented a little room in the house for $1.50. She started with five little girls, and her son was there. And within a year or so the school became so popular that she could not accept more students." said Long.

So, she bought the garbage dump known as Hell’s Hole from the city to build a bigger school. That site would later become Bethune Cookman University.

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The home of Mary McLeod Bethune has been reserved on BCU's campus and turned into a museum. photo by: Talia Blake[/caption]

"Right now, we are in the Mary McLeod Bethune Foundation, also affectionately known as the retreat. This was Dr. Bethune’s home," said Tasha Youmans, Dean of the Library and supervisor of the Mary McCLeod Bethune foundation.

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Mary's house still has all of its original appliances, like the stove with a crockpot built-in in place of one of the burners. photo by: Talia Blake[/caption]

The house sits right in the middle of the campus and entering it is like stepping back in time. It still has all of its original appliances, like the stove with a crock-pot built-in in place of one of the burners. You can also see gifts from prominent friends she had made, including a cane. "She bragged about how she just used it for swag purposes. And so you may have noticed the cane upstairs. It was donated to her from Eleanor Roosevelt. It was the former President Roosevelt’s cane that when he passed away, she gifted it to her because they were such great friends," said Youmans.

This same girl, who was born to former slaves, went on to become friends with people like the Roosevelts and Rockefellers and she became an adviser to multiple presidents.  In Mary’s Last Will and Testament, she said “I leave you a thirst for education.” Youmans said that’s a big part of Mary’s legacy, "If she could do it back then, having been born in 1875, we have no excuse. Right? So, I think for young people and even older people who may be facing challenges and situations, I think she's just such a great example of overcoming every obstacle. Be bold, be brave, be fearless, and that she was."

Brent Chrite agrees with Youmins. He says keeping Mary’s legacy alive is a big part of why he took the position as BCU’s President. "I am bullish on this institution, and on what we can achieve. This place is worth the effort. It is a jewel in the state of Florida and in this nation, and I consider it the privilege of my professional life to be here at this point."

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The bible (above) was left on this page the day Mary died. photo by: Talia Blake[/caption]

BCU’s  report is due to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools at the end of March, which is still on track even with the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic. Chrite won’t find out until at least the end of April if the university has been taken off probation. However, he’s hoping BCU has a clean slate by the time Mary McCleod Bethune’s statue is installed in the National Statuary Hall in Washington DC next year.

After a brief stint as Morning Edition Producer at The Public’s Radio in in Rhode Island, Talia Blake returned to WMFE, the station that grew her love for public radio. She graduated with a double-major in Broadcast Journalism and Psychology from the University of Central Florida (Go Knights!). While at UCF, she was an intern for WMFE’s public affairs show, Intersection. In her spare time, Talia is an avid foodie and enjoys working out.