Mary McLeod Bethune, the Pan-Africanist: An Interview with Ashley Robertson Preston

Photo: Bethune-Cookman University

This is an interview with Black Perspectives blogger Karen Cook Bell, Professor of History and the Wilson H. Elkins Endowed Professor at Bowie State University, and Ashley Robertson Preston, Assistant Professor of History at Howard University. The two discuss Preston’s latest book, Mary McLeod Bethune: the Pan-Africanist (University of Florida Press, 2023).

Karen Cook Bell (KCB): Mary McLeod Bethune: the Pan-Africanist builds on your prior scholarship on Dr. Bethune. What led you to write a book on Bethune’s Pan-Africanism?

Ashley Robertson Preston (ARP): In 2010 I started working at the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House-National Historic Landmark in the archives, and it was there that I started studying Mrs. Bethune’s life. From there in 2013 I became the director of her home in Daytona Beach, Florida, where I worked for five years. In these years of studying her and interviewing people who knew her I felt that her role as a Pan-Africanist was the one aspect that was overlooked although it was the foundation for much of what she did. There are so many men that Bethune worked with, including Paul Robeson and W.E.B. Du Bois, that have been properly acknowledged and credited as Pan-Africanists, yet she had been largely left out of the narrative. The first clues that I found were her trips to Haiti and Liberia. The people of these two countries chose to honor Bethune because they understood the mission that she was on to unify people of African descent and for that she was given their highest awards. She had not visited either country prior to receiving the awards, but she was revered by both. Early on this was what led me to dig deeper and when I did it became apparent that she embraced ideals of Pan-Africanism most of her life. Initially I did not start with this book because I felt that it was important to capture her work in Florida in my first book, particularly the oral interviews of elders (many of whom were in their nineties) who knew her personally.

KCB: Robin D. G. Kelley in his article, “‘But a Local Phase of a World Problem’: Black History’s Global Vision, 1883–1950,” published in the Journal of American History states that “Black history in the U.S. was intrinsically a transnational and diasporic phenomenon that had its origin way back in the European slave trade.”  The first chapter of your book speaks to how the South Carolina influenced Dr. Bethune’s consciousness.  Why was it important for you to include this chapter on Dr. Bethune’s historical roots?

ARP: In my classes when studying historical figures, I always encourage my students to gain an understanding of the earlier years of the person. For example, we must acknowledge that Malcolm X’s parents being followers of Marcus Garvey had an impact on his later years. Mrs. Bethune’s work is often associated with Washington, D.C., and Florida but South Carolina had a much greater influence on her because it gave her a solid foundation in understanding her African identity. It was at home, in the small town of Mayesville, that she began to understand that she was a part of a Black world that was larger than the United States. What an invaluable lesson to be learning at such an early age. She would embrace the notions of connectivity and solidarity, carrying these ideals with her throughout her journey, lessons learned at home, before she became known as “First Lady of Negro America.”

With almost 40% of enslaved Africans in America entering through Charleston, the culture of the state was influenced heavily by their presence and although they were dispersed to various places, they left an imprint. South Carolina is a unique space as it relates to the story of Africans in America. It is in her home state where Bethune is taught that her family descended from Africa, and she would later go on to declare “the drums of Africa still beat in my heart,” again, expressing her connectedness. As a youth she becomes aware of opportunities to go back to Africa as a missionary and she sets the goal of doing so, although her plans are later changed for her. The significance of Africa, being a part of a vast African Diaspora and connecting with descendants of Africa becomes a major focus for Bethune while in South Carolina. Her later years are made richer because of what was instilled in her in her youth and I did not want readers to miss out on learning more about those years.

KCB: Black internationalism and Pan-Africanism were birthed from the same early twentieth- century liberationist impulse. How does the term Pan-Africanism encapsulate the international work of Dr. Bethune?

ARP: If we really look at what Mrs. Bethune stood for, it was always for the true liberation of all African people, and she encouraged them to unify and understand one another to accomplish this. In a speech during her tenure as president of National Association of Colored Women (NACW) she stated, “We must make this national body of colored women not merely a national influence, but a significant link between peoples of color throughout the world.” Bethune saw herself as a link and she wanted people of African descent to embrace the idea that they were linked to one another. Ultimately as president of NACW and founder and president of National Council of Negro Women she fostered solidarity among women of African descent through traveling, hosting conversations with world leaders and opening membership and affiliation to women outside of the United States.

In the same speech, she goes on to say, “their problems are ours and vice versa” and that they should use their resources to achieve freedom. She wanted the women to see the similarities in their struggles, despite their geographic locations. Her desire for freedom was not just for Africans in America, but around the world was what she stood for at the founding of the United Nations in 1945, when she took a bold stance against colonization. As she traveled in her later years she mentored leaders in the Bahamas, Liberia, and Canada, sharing her insight and wisdom as an activist. Upon returning to the U.S. from her travels she enlightened African Americans through her writings in the Chicago Defender, encouraging them to go to Liberia for themselves. From her youth, when she decided to pursue a degree at Moody Institute, in hopes that it would prepare her to go to Africa to be a change agent there, Bethune was always concerned with the plight of her people.

KCB: What impact does Mary McLeod Bethune: the Pan-Africanist have on the existing literature?

ARP: There has been much attention placed on the international work of Black women, particularly in the last decade. The doors are really opening but I feel that this work will encourage more scholars to boldly acknowledge Black women as Pan-Africanists in their publications. As for Mrs. Bethune, I believe that this work will help others to see her in a new light, not just as a civil rights and women’s rights leader. This work will raise Bethune’s profile to an internationally known and respected Pan-Africanist who broadened the scope of Black women’s organizations to unify people of African descent. There are so many layers to the work of Mrs. Bethune and this book reveals one that is an important part of the why behind her activism.

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Karen Cook Bell

Karen Cook Bell is the Wilson H. Elkins Endowed Professor of History at Bowie State University. She is the author of Claiming Freedom: Race, Kinship, and Land in Nineteenth Century Georgia (University of South Carolina Press, 2018); Running From Bondage: Enslaved Women and Their Remarkable Fight for Freedom in Revolutionary America (Cambridge University Press, 2021) and Southern Black Women and Their Struggle for Freedom during the Civil War and Reconstruction (Cambridge University Press, 2023). She is Founding Director of the BSU Du Bois Center for the Study of the Black Experience at Bowie State University. Follow her on Twitter at @kbphd08 and at the BSU Du Bois Cenetr @BSUDuBoisCenter

Comments on “Mary McLeod Bethune, the Pan-Africanist: An Interview with Ashley Robertson Preston

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    I just found this gem of an article about an amazing woman, scholar, advocate, mentor, and influential activist Mrs. Mary McLeod Bethune. After reading this interview, I’m not only excited to read more in depth about Mrs. Bethune’s work, but I’m also encouraged as a black woman to learn more about my African roots-particularly about women that have moved mountains to get us where we are today in spite of all the work we still have left to do. Amazing read! Thank you for such an informative and thoughtful article/interview.

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