An open letter on African American history from the legacies of Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune

As native-born Floridians, graduates of Bethune-Cookman University, inheritors and custodians of the legacy of Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, and in the absence of our beloved founder to express her own opinions about the importance of African American history, we write to encourage every leader and citizen in the state of Florida to double down and resist any notion of eliminating the indispensable role of people of African descent in Florida’s education curriculum at any level.

An open letter on African American history from the legacies of Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune

Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune

In the legacy of Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, we implore all the citizens of Florida to rise up to help their leaders garner respect for the uses of their power.

In 1954, when she wrote her “Last Will and Testament,’’ Dr. Bethune reminded us that we live in a world which respects power above all things. She said, “Power, intelligently directed, can lead to more freedom, but unwisely directed, it can be a dreadful, destructive force.”

On which side of this paradigm do Floridians stand? Do you use your power as a result of reason, evidence, and facts? From what place do you come, when you make decisions? Dr. Bethune believed power should act on the side of human justice.

Concerning the proposal to eliminate African American history in the Advanced Placement curriculum, why not seek to use your power to affirm the history of a people who, for without, America would not be the most powerful country on earth?

What about Bethune?

An irony about this proposal is that it is in Florida where the pre-English history of this country began with both Africans and Europeans. We wonder if Floridians think this fact should be removed from the Advanced Placement class offerings.

Speaking of irony, we remind the people of Florida that our state unveiled a statue of an African American woman in 2022, to represent it in statuary hall in Congress.

Florida made history that should be in its annals because a likeness of Dr. Bethune was placed there, the first African American woman with such an honor.

A lecture on this historic unveiling should be included in African American history curriculum, especially since Dr. Bethune replaced a Confederate General. Is this not history that could be considered for students to learn in Florida?

The most ironic implication of the plans to eliminate this course is that it was Dr. Bethune who led the path to K-12 African American history education in America. She served as national president of the first American learned society established to preserve, collect and distribute the history of Black people in this country, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH).

Founded in 1915 by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, ASALH created Black History Month in 1926 and in 1937 because of Dr. Bethune’s urging, the organization began to publish the “Black History Bulletin’’ to be a curriculum source on African American life and history for teachers.

One of Florida’s two great citizens in Statuary Hall, then, was a proponent of teaching and learning African American history.

She would object

Because she did so in her school and for her country, Dr. Bethune would agree that including Advanced African American Studies in the public-school curriculum promotes the idea that African American history is a crucial element of world history.

It supports the narrative that African American history and thereby African American people are valued in American culture. Such education helps to create unity by eliminating divisive ideologies that exist between racial groups in America.

It promotes the idea that African American history is American history.

We are concerned, as you should be Floridians, that the law impermissibly restricts free speech and equal protection under the 14th Amendment.

The law officially bans instructors from expressing disfavored viewpoints in the classrooms while permitting unfettered expression of opposing viewpoints. Additionally, under this law, professors enjoy academic freedom so long as they express only those viewpoints of which the state approves.

The results of this idea would have a disparate impact on many teachers as well as those whose professions are directly related to African American studies.

Political extremism

People of Florida, the rejection of Advanced Placement African American studies in high schools is an attack on African American people’s very existence and inevitably will create an entire generation of African American children who won’t be able to see themselves reflected within their own education or in their own state.

This political extremism runs afoul of our responsibility to our young people as intended by Dr. Bethune .

Finally, people of Florida, Dr. Bethune said: “I want to see my people conduct themselves naturally in all relationships – fully conscious of their manly responsibilities and deeply aware of their heritage. I want them to learn to understand whites and influence them for good, for it is advisable and sensible for us to so do.”

Thus, we write at the memorial behest of our beloved Mary McLeod Bethune, to influence and reason with you as citizens of the great state of Florida, to request that you do all you can to use your power and the necessity to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth about our state and country histories by opposing any idea that would ever erase African American people from the education curriculum of Florida.

Dr. Sheila Y. Flemming is the founder and president of Black Rose Foundation for Children, Inc. Johnny McCray Jr. is the president of the Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune National Alumni Association.

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