In a year in which a marble statue of Mary McLeod Bethune is expected to be erected in Statuary Hall in the Capitol Building in Washington, two Daytona State College professors are producing a documentary on the founder of Bethune-Cookman University.
DAYTONA BEACH — You might know about Mary McLeod Bethune, who founded Bethune-Cookman University with $1.50 and five little girls in 1904.
You might know about Bethune’s work in President Franklin Roosevelt’s “black cabinet” in the 1930s and ‘40s, or her response to the racist policies banning blacks from Daytona’s beaches, to purchase land south of New Smyrna Beach and turn it into a beach blacks could access.
You might know how she helped pave the way for Jackie Robinson to play professional baseball in Daytona in 1946.
But if you don’t, it’s understandable. Two Daytona State College professors, Eric Breitenbach and Len Lempel, who are developing a full-length documentary film about Bethune, said they knew little to nothing about her through their collegiate years, before arriving in Florida.
“Mary McLeod Bethune is like one of the greatest American figures in the 20th century and there’s no documentary film, no film really, that reaches the stature that her historical significance requires,” Lempel said. “Neither is there a book, a scholarly book on the subject.”
Breitenbach, a senior professor of photography, and Lempel, a professor emeritus of history, teamed up in 2016 to make the documentary “Hoppin’ Rattlesnakes: Oral Histories of Beach Racing in Volusia County, 1903-1958.”
Breitenbach — who’s made about 25 films, some long-form, some as short as three minutes — said he feels a sense of urgency to tell the Bethune story because firsthand accounts of Bethune, who died in 1955, are becoming scarcer.
“We couldn’t wait any longer. In fact, I think we’ve waited too long already. One or two people we would have liked to have interviewed is difficult to get to right now because of failing health,” Breitenbach said.
Lempel and Breitenbach have completed a number of “elder interviews,” with people who knew Bethune, but want to do more. They are also hoping to shoot footage at a festival in Bethune’s hometown, Mayesville, South Carolina, in July, as well as traveling to Pietrasanta, Italy, the “City of Artists,” where Nilda Comas is working on a larger-than-life-sized sculpture of Bethune that will be installed in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol.
Part of their passion is fueled by their desire to do justice to her life — which, while celebrated, isn’t widely recognized or fully understood.
“I think the main reason has to do with timing,” said Lempel, who spent 16 years of his career at Bethune-Cookman. “A lot of the civil rights icons that have been written on come after television, come after the Brown decision in 1954, Martin Luther King, what most people think of the civil rights movement.
“Well, Bethune dies in 1955. Her halcyon years are the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s. So she really comes before the key period of the Civil Rights Movement that most people think of.”
While Lempel and Breitenbach have yet to find video footage of Bethune, they are still looking. And they are planning to use recordings that reveal her “perfect English, regal, almost Elizabethan” voice.
In order to transform the Daytona Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls into a college, Bethune combined that voice with an uncommon determination to do better for her neighbors.
“If you look at her life, you know it’s a cliche to say it, but the woman never took no for an answer,” Breitenbach said. “The word that I think of is relentless. Nothing was ever good enough. There was always another problem to solve and another cause to advance. Just unbelievable.”
When she started her school, Florida had the most lynchings per capita or any other state, a time that was the “nadir of race relations in this country,” Lempel said.
That didn’t stop her from going to the City Council to demand sidewalks for a black neighborhood. “Because of her, there are black policemen as early as 1905, 1906,” he said.
The filmmakers’ admiration for Bethune continues into her ability to persuade influential, wealthy white residents and snowbirds like John Rockefeller and James Gamble (of Procter & Gamble) for help with her school and other causes.
As a rare black female college president, she becomes an adviser to Republican President Herbert Hoover in the late 1920s. With Hoover blamed for the Great Depression, Democrat Franklin Roosevelt sweeps into the White House in 1932. At that point, Democrats were known as the party of white supremacy.
Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor, had grown up as aristocrats and were largely unconcerned with the plight of blacks, Lempel said. But when someone recommends Eleanor Roosevelt meet Bethune, “they become extraordinarily close friends.”
That friendship spurred FDR to become more in tune with black equality and integration, and by 1936, many black voters move to the Democrats, where they have remained ever since.
"Bethune isn’t the only factor,“ Lempel said. ”In my research she probabaly is the biggest factor for that.“
Bethune becomes the head of the “black cabinet,” a group of African-American advisers to Roosevelt. And she later becomes minority affairs director of the National Youth Administration, a New Deal program.
Bethune’s death in 1955 is accompanied by one of her greatest legacies, her “Last Will and Testament,” in which she writes: “I leave you love. ... I leave you hope.”
Asked what audience they envision for the film, Lempel and Breitenbach didn’t hesitate to mention PBS as a goal.
“Ken Burns will be jealous of the film we’re going to make,” Lempel said. “There’s a lot of people out there who have not gotten their due. But I think Mary McLeod Bethune is a special case … her significance has not been fully recognized.”
This story originally published to newsjournalineonline.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the new Gannett Media network.