Honoring Black History and the Prime Need of Our Time

6 Min Read
Dr. Bethune and her students in a line
“Knowledge is the prime need of the hour.” – Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune

People who know me would tell you that the one important thing that resonates with me the most is my “Why”?

I am curious by nature and have a strong need to understand origins, purpose, and mission—small whys, big whys, and everything in between. For me, Black History Month is a celebration of the accomplishments of black excellence, both today with our progeny, and yesterday from our ancestors. Part of my why is focusing on the success of children and paving the way for a future that is bright and full of possibilities. Never has a quote rang truer than this one from Maya Angelou:

“The more you know of your history, the more liberated you are.”

This quest to dig deep for reasons, for knowledge, for purpose, has guided me through more than three decades of progressive leadership experience in education, and it has guided me in my passion to really support and nurture the learning and natural curiosity that all children possess.

Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, pictured above, also had this passion. And by coincidence I came across this photo recently in HMH’s African American History program and it shook me a bit. You see, I attended grade school in the early 1970s in Hattiesburg, MS, while living with my Grandma Ruth for a period of time—the grade school was Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School! I was born and raised in Detroit and am a proud product of the Detroit Public School system. And my mother and father, who both hail from Hattiesburg, moved to Detroit during the Great Black Migration (a movement of 6 million Black people out of the rural Southern United States to the urban Northeast and Midwest from 1910–1970). But each summer, my twin sister and I would spend those months with Grandma Ruth—except during third and fourth grade when we stayed the full year in Hattiesburg and attended Mary McLeod Bethune elementary school.

Left: Grandma Ruth, April 1964, in Mississippi; Right: Benita and Danita, Summer in Michigan the 1970s

This was a crucial time in my life and, as many educators understand, third grade often offers a peek into a child’s future. It is a pivotal year for reading to learn, not just learning to read. In my case, I was (and still am) a voracious reader. I could not get enough of it! I would devour every book, newspaper, leaflet, flyer, road signs, everything. And I would see pictures and read stories about people and places far away, historic events, and all types of truth and fiction. My curiosity drove Grandma Ruth crazy—every question I asked her while reading one thing or another would be met with a “look it up, Benita.” So, I did, spending hours in our small schoolhouse in the windowless library of 100 or so books, and in parts of the World Book encyclopedia. I say parts because we would buy one volume at a time when the traveling salesmen would stop by and ask if we wanted the next new volume available. But we would miss some volumes, because we needed the money for household necessities or utility payments. I did not mind; it created a mystery for me to solve, what was in and between these missing volumes. The birth of my “why.”

Windows and Mirrors

Today, and in this post, I am reaffirmed in what I want to explore—the why—of Black History Month and how it intersects with my work, my passion today, and the mission of HMH.

Black History Month, officially established in the United States in 1976, grew out of the work of historian Carter G. Woodson, who dedicated his professional life to expanding the availability of historical education that explored the African American experience, understanding that the absence of that history in American classrooms profoundly restricted the ability of Black students to learn and grow.

Why would it not? Rudine Sims Bishop, professor emerita of education at The Ohio State University, described how the things we read can be windows “offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange”—but also at times they can be mirrors, reflecting our experiences back to us, acting as a “means of self-affirmation” that we are seen, understood, and considered important.

I think about these windows and mirrors in terms of the photograph at the top of this page. In this image I see a woman determined to create windows and mirrors in a time and place where those supports were devastatingly rare for African Americans. The world Dr. Bethune knew, and how she helped to enact positive change in that world, is covered in HMH’s African American History module on Reconstruction:

During Reconstruction, freed people were eager to learn, but many white southerners did not want them to be educated. With an education, freed people could better compete for jobs and for economic and political power. Some white Southerners even went as far as to burn down Black schools and to attack teachers and students. Despite such violent opposition, by 1877, more than 600,000 African Americans were enrolled in schools. During its existence, the Freedmen’s Bureau founded more than 4,000 Black schools. African American churches and private donors also helped found and support Black schools across the country.
With only $1.50, educator Mary McLeod Bethune managed to find [land on which to build] just such a school. One of 17 McLeod children, she was the first to be born into freedom instead of slavery. After being trained as a teacher, she moved to the east coast of Florida in 1904. There she founded the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls. She picked through trash to find old lamps, desks, dishes, and other supplies for the school. She also worked tirelessly to get donations to keep the school running. In 1923, Bethune's school merged with the Cookman Institute for Men and became Bethune-Cookman College.

Of course, Dr. Bethune’s struggle for equity in education continued after her passing. She knew this would be the case. In her will, she wrote, “I am aware that [death] will overtake me before the greatest of my dreams—full equality for the Negro in our time—is realized.” This did not cause her to despair, and in that same will she enumerated all the many ways she was handing off a legacy. “I leave you a thirst for education,” she wrote. I had that thirst as a young student, but I too found a lack of windows and mirrors, not encountering in the many books I devoured early on and throughout my education anyone who looked like me—and if I did, it was in a pejorative manner, steeped in struggle, and reinforcing stereotypes of Black Americans.

And the struggle continues to this day. When Dr. Bethune wrote, “Knowledge is the prime need of the hour,” she could have been writing about our current moment.

"Education is the great American adventure, the world’s most colossal democratic experiment." – Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune

I am deeply honored to play a role in education, and I know that this is an honor shared by my colleagues at HMH. As an education technology company focused on empowering students and teachers, it is our responsibility to build high-quality content and provide services and resources that foster a holistic understanding of our world, honor the diverse communities we serve, and help students—all the babies—thrive academically.

Our high purpose—bringing learning to countless students, teachers, and readers—means we must take seriously our ability to impact and transform lives. By supporting communities, and making our society more open, just, and inclusive for all, we serve that purpose. This further means that HMH programs and services for educators strive to create equitable, inclusive, and culturally affirming classroom environments that provide resources and supports that all students need and that foster appreciation and respect for all people and cultures. Key to our mission is driving demonstrable growth and positive outcomes for every student we serve through engaging content that is historically accurate and consistent with and supportive of state standards.

Our Why Today

At HMH, we are committed to creating materials that are realistic mirrors of students’ lives and that should also present new possibilities, demonstrating our belief that students can achieve their dreams while imagining new dreams. The dreams, places, and events I had imagined as a third grader at Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary school in the 1970s becoming real and possible for all the babies! This commitment drives our work in every content area and for every grade level, but as someone who went for a long time without seeing any windows and mirrors in my own early schooling, I am particularly gratified by HMH’s African American History program, a Grades 6–12 social studies program. Our program highlights the role of Africans and African Americans in the development of the United States. It encourages students to explore details about the people, places, and events that have influenced life for African Americans in this country since its inception.

Teachers can succeed by accessing a wide range of lesson support, assessment, and professional learning resources helping them better manage instruction. The program was designed to support districts that want to ensure their students are learning about the history and contributions of all cultures, including African American history. The curriculum is culturally affirming and represents current scholarship that allows students to see the relevance of the content and provides guidance for educators.

A Shared Purpose

The HMH mission, the purpose of Black History Month, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune’s purpose, and my own purpose all come together around the idea that the best and most beautiful work we can do is open as many windows and create as many mirrors as there are people in this world.

I told you a little of the story of the photograph at the top of this post, and now I invite you to come up with your own story about the photograph at the bottom of this post, which is also from the HMH African American History program.

For me, the story has to do with that word I love, why, coupled with another phrase: Why not? Why not capture every story? Why not create mirrors and windows to encourage every story? Why not transform lives, support communities, and make our society more open, just, and inclusive for all?


Explore more Black history with HMH Into Social Studies, an inquiry-based social studies program for Grades 6–12.

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