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New Course on Mary McLeod Bethune To Be Taught At Howard

Howard introduces a new course in collaboration with Brown University, centered on the life and impact of Mary McLeod Bethune.

A flier for the Howard University x Brown University Mary Bethune course. (Photo courtesy of Ashley Preston)

Howard University prepares to welcome a new course this fall in partnership with Brown University, focusing on Mary McLeod Bethune, a notable Women’s rights and Black rights activist. The course is designed to immerse students in Bethune’s extensive body of work and activism, aiming to inspire the students as they delve into the profound impact of her legacy. 

The inception of this course traces back to the early stages of Dr. Ashley Robertson Preston’s Ph.D. studies at Howard University, where she chose to concentrate on Mary McLeod Bethune. Having graduated from Howard University in 2013 with a Ph.D. in history, Preston now serves as an assistant history professor at Howard, where she teaches courses such as Historical Editing and The U.S. since 1817. 

Preston shared that the idea for the class came in 2022 when she met Dr. Noliwe Rooks at Brown University for a digital publishing institute they are both a part of. Like Preston, Rooks, who serves as the chair of Africana studies at Brown, was working on a book about Bethune and suggested that they teach a class surrounding Bethune’s work and legacy.

“It started [at Howard University],” Preston said, “and so I was really excited to bring that scholarship back to the place in which I started. And I also think that it’s really important for Howard students to understand more about Mrs. Bethune because her story encompasses so many different aspects of American and African diaspora history.”

Often referred to as ‘The First Lady of Negro America’, Mary McLeod Bethune was a prominent advocate for racial and gender equality. Renowned for her dedication to education, she founded numerous schools and institutions, tirelessly working to ensure that Black individuals had access to education and opportunities.

As a member of the curriculum committee, Dr. Scot Brown, an associate History professor at Howard University, describes the work as “advising faculty members on their work” and  “providing feedback to help strengthen their work before submission to the next stage.” Like Preston, Brown believes that Mary Mcleod Bethune’s legacy is important to understand.

“There’s certain people like Mary Mcleod Bethune who have an understanding of the urgency of the moment,” Brown explained. “And so when you study her and the breath of her knowledge, you’ll  be able to actually have a model to emulate and you’ll have a model that you can innovate off of.” 

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According to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Bethune’s efforts were particularly significant during the Jim Crow era when Black people faced systemic barriers. 

Bethune’s work focused on providing educational opportunities and aimed to empower individuals to overcome discrimination and achieve success. Preston hopes that students who take the class will be inspired by Bethune’s legacy as a pioneering figure in the fight for civil rights. 

“Looking at her life, you see possibilities. You become inspired,” Preston said.  “Seeing how she did so much with so little and so I think that’s something that other people can learn from.”

The process to create the course began in October 2023 and took only six months. Preston attributes the smooth process to her previous research which significantly advanced her timeline. 

To propose a class at Howard University, one must begin with comprehensive research, which includes outlining a syllabus, a list of the textbooks and information relevant to the topic and devising a schedule that structures how the class would be paced. 

Following this, Preston presented her class to the curriculum committee for the History department and subsequently to the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences for review. Once the information is viewed and approved by the Dean, the proposal is sent to the Abusage committee, where it undergoes further evaluation by university faculty who vote on its inception. 

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“I think her story has been told in a sense, but not enough,” Preston shared with The Hilltop. “A lot of times in mainstream media people repeat the same folks over and over again and so it’s time for her to be a part of that conversation.”

Preston shared with The Hilltop that guest lecturers will be joining throughout the semester. They will discuss different aspects of Bethune’s work, from her efforts within the schools she founded and how she aided Black people in passing literacy tests during the Jim Crow Era, to the time she served in President Roosevelt’s cabinet. 

As a member of the National Council of Negro Women, which was founded by Bethune, and a resident of Miami, Florida, Jeannisa Glover, a senior legal communications major,  isn’t unfamiliar with Mary Mcleod Bethune’s work. 

“I think she’s an important person to study. I think she’s one of those historic figures that kind of gets left in the shadows because she did do a lot of work, not only in Florida but all around the world,”  Glover said. 

Students enrolled in the course will also have the opportunity to participate in a digital publishing project. They will create a final digital project focused on one aspect of Bethune‘s work, which they will publish by the end of the semester. The project will be hosted through Brown University’s library of digital scholarship.

Copy edited by D’ara Campbell

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