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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

The Coming Revolution

The negative opinion of Times’ political expert Adam Smith aside, I think America’s next revolution began last week. Well, really it began with the Women’s March in January of last year, but two recent achievements show its growing strength. One, the legislature passed and the governor signed a bill to make Florida’s Mary McLeod Bethune the first African-American woman honored with a statue in the national capitol; and two, millions of people in an amazing 800 towns in every state braved March cold to protest against guns. Adam doesn’t think that these activists can remember until November, but I do.

The first, first. I’ve written before about Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune (who, by the way, insisted on inclusion of her maiden name), but I’ll do so again – mostly to reinforce the point that the revolution indeed has begun. Ever since Dylan Roof shot African-Americans in a South Carolina church simply because of the color of their skin, our Congresswoman Kathy Castor has led the charge to replace the statue that Florida erected in Washington in 1922 to honor a racist. It was an in-your-face insult to blacks who might think about getting uppity after World War I, and quite possibly, was intended to as a direct challenge to Mary McLeod Bethune.

Just to refresh your memory, an all-white, all-male Florida legislature honored Confederate General (Edmund) Kirby Smith with one of two statues that each state has in the capitol. He wasn’t even a real Floridian. Born in St. Augustine, he moved with his parents at age five and never returned. What the 1922 legislature admired about him was that he was the last Confederate general to surrender. A true traitor to the United States, he went on to Mexico and tried to restart the Civil War from there. Even if we limited the statue choice to white male Floridians, Smith is in no way worthy of recognition as a great achiever in our state.

More to the Story

Mary McLeod Bethune, on the other hand, was one of seventeen children of former slaves. She was so obviously intelligent that a Quaker teacher in Colorado funded her education, which included Chicago’s famous Moody Bible Institute. She wanted to be a missionary to Africa, but no church was willing to sponsor her. Instead, she taught at a series of segregated schools in South Carolina and Georgia.

Historians usually fail to explore what caused a woman to make a seemingly odd life-changing decision, but I have decided to end my silence on that: deviation from a career path is most likely to be caused by an unwed pregnancy. My speculation is that pregnancy was the reason why Mary McLeod Bethune ended up in the woods near Palatka. She married Albertus Bethune exactly nine months before their son was born, and I suspect some creative license in those dates because otherwise, there is little reason why she would have married him. He was not a teacher, as the Times report said, but rather an uneducated man who tapped pine trees for the resin that was important to the era’s industry. These camps were notorious for brutality and semi-slavery, and I think that the most likely reason why she went there is that she had no choice.

Their marriage quickly deteriorated, and although her deep religious beliefs kept her from filing for divorce, a husband was a factor in her life only briefly. She supported herself by teaching and by selling policies for Afro-American Life Insurance. She would continue that sideline for the rest of her life, ultimately becoming head of Central Life Insurance, which was based in Tampa. At the time, other insurance agencies would not sell to blacks.

In 1904, when her son was five, they moved east, and with $1.50 in savings, she began the Daytona Beach Literary and Industrial School for Training Negro Girls. She and her girls cleaned up an abandoned property and created a boarding school, as she very astutely targeted her audience: the daughters of maids who traveled North with their employers in summer. Moreover, she used those servants’ contacts as a fundraising source, making friends with the Rockefellers, the Gambles of Proctor & Gamble, and other wealthy people who wintered in northeast Florida.

Those connections doubtless helped protect her against local racists. The Ku Klux Klan did only one terrorist attack on her school, and that was just after women won the vote in 1920. Bethune registered voters and the Klan objected, but she faced them down in their nighttime raid. Racism in Florida was so profound, however, that white men completely destroyed the all-black west coast town of Roseville, shooting its residents and burning their homes in 1923. It’s important to remember that Kirby Smith’s statue was in 1922, and that his family was based in St. Augustine, not far from Bethune’s Daytona Beach. The governor at the time was Cary Hardee, who lived most of his life in Live Oak. I’ve little doubt that these North Florida guys intended Smith’s statue to send an intimidating message to those who would challenge the status quo.

Terrorist tactics, however, did not daunt Bethune. Her political activism continued as founder of the National Council of Negro Women and other organizations, some of them integrated; when she died in 1955, she even was on the national board of Planned Parenthood. The Times ran a photo of her with Eleanor Roosevelt that I’d never seen, and I particularly liked Eleanor’s foot-long corsage, similar to my mother’s 25th wedding anniversary corsage. By the time of this 1937 photo, Eleanor’s husband had appointed Bethune as head of the National Youth Administration, a Great Depression agency that provided job training for minority teenagers, including Native Americans and Mexican Americans. She was the first African American of either gender to head a federal agency.

Already in 1931, she was tenth on a journalists’ list of fifty outstanding women. Her acme came in 1945, when President Harry Truman appointed her to the founding meeting of the United Nations: she was the only woman of color with official status in the entire world. You can see from this -- and more achievements that I’ve omitted -- why it runs me nuts when people define her merely as the founder of Bethune-Cookman University.

And Related Political Thoughts

But it probably was Bethune-Cookman and its alumni and lobbyists that forced Tallahassee’s hand. We had tried legislation to replace Kirby Smith earlier and were ignored. We tried again and got him moved to an obscure corner – he had been highly visible at the top of the escalator in the Capitol Visitor Center – but didn’t get agreement on a replacement.

You may remember that I asked to you to vote in an online poll, which Bethune won, but the committee (of non-historians) appointed by Governor Scott was divided between her, Publix founder George Jenkins, and environmental icon Marjory Stoneman Douglas. Had the shooting at the school named for Douglas occurred a few weeks earlier, the issue probably would have gotten tied up with that, but by then, the legislature already had passed the resolution for Bethune. It was a deliberately quiet campaign, and Castor’s liaison to the legislature, Dewayne Mallory, deserves much credit.

Some of my friends supported Douglas, but I started openly working for Bethune a while back. This is not because Douglas doesn’t also deserve credit, but because she had a much easier life. In contrast to being the child of former slaves, she was the child of the owner of the Miami Herald. The thing that probably made the political difference this legislative session, however, was that Bethune-Cookman University promised to raise the money for the statue, thus giving legislators an easy out on the issue. A sculptor already has been found, and I’ll let you know when it is dedicated. I’m putting pennies in a jar so that I can go.


Okay, I said in the first paragraph that I would get to the second revolutionary action of the past week, but I’ve decided that I can’t say anything that hasn’t been said by dozens of other pundits. Except to particularly congratulate some of my friends, including Betty Castor, who are even older than I and yet participated in Tampa’s march. It was a determinedly youthful event, organized by high-school kids who also were the most popular speakers, but the many of the old guard also showed up. Jack Price, who once headed the National Coalition of Christians and Jews here in Tampa, went to the Gainesville march in his wheelchair at age 88. In Pinellas, Democratic leader Winnie Foster rode a wheelchair at age 90.

My favorite of the many creative signs at marches that were featured on the internet was a woman with one that said: “After you finish mansplaining about your right to bear arms, I’ll momsplain about my right to bear a child who can live safely.”

And this may be a good time to remind you that we’ve regulated guns for a long time. One of the first pieces of legislation passed in the new Massachusetts colony was a ban – enforced with tough fines – on selling weapons to Native Americans. In the pre-Civil War South, of course, it was illegal to allow African Americans access to guns. Until quite recently, most gun dealers refused to sell to them.

History is complicated, and a little knowledge – on any side of an issue – is a dangerous thing. Therefore I encourage you to go to the Civil War Roundtable’s next meeting, which will be at the Tampa Bay History Center on Saturday, March 31, from 9 to 12 AM. The speaker will be Dr. Richard Banz, executive director of the Southern Museum of the Civil War at Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia. That was where the last really horrific Deep South battle took place, and the Union’s win ensured the fall of Atlanta in time for Abraham Lincoln’s 1864 re-election.

Without that victory, it is possible that Lincoln would have lost the election to his former general, George McClellan. If McClellan had won, his supporters planned a political compromise with the North that would continue slavery in the South. And if the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain had been lost and Atlanta had not fallen, Florida might well have been part of the Confederate States of America, not the United States of America.

The devil always is in knowing the details, so even if you are rabidly anti-Confederate, you’ll be a better debater with racists if you go to this and learn the facts. It’s billed as “non-political, non-partisan, and open to all,” and is free. To make a reservation, go to TampaBayHistoryCenter.org/events.


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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