The Lasting Legacy of Dr. Mary McCleod Bethune

by Dr. Christina Grant and Dr. Aleesia Johnson

“If it were not for Black women, Black people would not have been educated in this country.”- Dr. Sharon Contreras, Superintendent, Guilford County Schools 

On a Friday morning in June, 13 Black women who serve as school superintendents across the United States gathered in front of a monument.  [They’d] made a very intentional decision to come together in tribute to one of our foremothers whose path shaped the way for so many of us – Dr. Mary McCleod Bethune.  

 If you don’t know Dr. Bethune’s name, you should.  Because of her contributions to the country, she is the first African American represented in the National Statuary Hall Collection in the U.S. Capitol building.  Her statue was revealed just earlier this month. She was a civil rights advocate, specifically for the rights of Black women, a presidential advisor, and – most inspiring to all of us – an educator, who founded the Daytona Literary and Industrial Training Institute for Negro Girls on October 3, 1904 “with $1.50, vision, an entrepreneurial mindset, resilience and faith in God.” The school later merged with all-male Cookman Institute to become today’s Bethune-Cookman University.  

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As we gathered in front of her statue, it was impossible to not recognize the awesomeness of the moment.  Thirteen Black women–with experience in the superintendency ranging from one month to 12 years – coming together to lift and be lifted by one another in a sacred place that was once the birthplace of a school for little girls who looked like us.

It was an inspiring moment, and also a deeply troubling one. In a nation where the majority of public school students are children of color, Black women superintendents are far too rare —a situation that tells a problematic story to millions of Black children and creates a cycle of corrosive pressure on the few of us who hold the job. 

According to the data reviewed, of the 500 largest school districts in America, just thirty-seven of those districts are currently led by Black women.  To put this in context, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2020, there were 7.4 million Black students enrolled in our nation’s public schools, or about 15 percent of total enrollment.

If those numbers take your breath away, they should.  Of the thirteen of us who gathered, two-thirds were “firsts”–the first woman, first Black person or first Black woman to lead in her district.  We share that as something worthy not of accolades but of deep concern.  Because of the often barrier-breaking nature of the role as well as the scarce numbers of Black women existing in the seat already, serving as a superintendent as a Black woman means more than just a job.  It means carrying the legacies of those who came before you and blazed a trail.  It means understanding that you represent an aspiration and inspiration for those who’d like to come behind you and those students you serve each day.  But, it also means being particularly susceptible to closer scrutiny and the object of conscious or unconscious racial and gender bias.  It means weighing how you act on your personal values while still being able to maintain your role.  It means being in a system that has historically not served the community that looks like yours well yet still believing in the promise of what can be. And, ultimately, it means identifying how you can thrive and not just survive in your leadership.

There is more to Black women who serve as urban superintendents than passion and commitment.  We all could speak at length about the sacrifice — both personal and professional — that comes with the role.  As we convened on Bethune-Cookman University’s campus, the magnitude of our work, impact and mere existence was palpable. We shed tears as we took in all of the realizations associated with being a Black woman in America and being a leader — even today. We stood under the powerful image of Mary McCleod Bethune and understood that though the road is hard, we feel a deep  responsibility to support, educate and love our children. The question remains: how do we thrive in our roles, and how are school systems intentional about creating the conditions necessary for more Black women to become superintendents?

Our gathering together was about reflecting on the path towards thriving as the conditions of the work can cultivate mere survival. This weekend we discovered that we need to gather together – as we journey to thrive – more often.  We both had the pleasure and privilege of pursuing doctoral studies and centering our research on Black women serving in the Urban Superintendency. Our research revealed that though our routes to the role are vast, the calling to serve, faith in God and commitment to our children and communities remain resolute. In order for this work to manifest and have long term impact – we must remain steadfast in our pursuit to both sustain ourselves and thrive in the work, and it is clear that we can not do it alone.  

So, as we carry our gratitude back with us to our respective communities, we are also fortified by the enduring words of Dr. Bethune herself, written in her last will and testament:

“Here, Then, is My Legacy…

I leave you love. Love builds. It is positive and helpful.

I leave you hope. Yesterday, our ancestors endured the degradation of slavery, yet they retained their dignity…

I leave you thirst for education. Knowledge is the prime need of the hour…

I leave you faith. Faith in God is the greatest power, but great, too, is faith in oneself…

I leave you, finally, a responsibility to our young people.

The world around us really belongs to youth, for youth will take over its future management.”

Those words, written so many years ago, remain our charge as Black women in the superintendency today.  We stand on the shoulders of our ancestors – and we must thrive, for there is much work to be done for our children.  

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Dr. Christina Grant is the State Superintendent in the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, Washington, DC.  

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Dr. Aleesia Johnson is the Superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools in Indianapolis, IN. 

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