Montclair History Moment: Mary McLeod Bethune

Going up Claremont Avenue past Upper Mountain Avenue, one passes the cottage-like James Howe House, familiarly known as the “Freed Slave House”. It is distinguished as being among the oldest standing houses in Montclair. Although it is significant as being the first property owned by an African American (formerly a slave), since 1836, some people in Montclair gave it the name “The Washington Wayside House” altering its significance in their minds to the fact that Washington and his troops walked passed the house on their way to Morristown.

Washington never really slept in Montclair, but historical figure Mary McLeod Bethune actually did. McLeod Bethune’s stay at in the Fourth Ward at the Darden House is an important fact that Montclair shares with American History.

At this time when American history is being corrected and public monuments to insignificant figures are coming down, Mary McLeod Bethune, educator and civil rights leader will be honored with a monument in the US Capitol that will replace the statue of a Confederate General from Florida.

McLeod Bethune, the daughter of former slaves was born in 1875 in Maysville South Carolina. She is the founder of the Daytona Normal and Industrial School for Negro Girls that eventually evolved into the Bethune-Cookman University, one of America’s first historically black colleges and universities.

Montclair’s Darden sisters from Orange Road recall some anecdotes and memories of their family’s illustrious houseguest in their book “Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine”. A warm and charming recollection shared among friends is how the Dardens hosted her when she sold her house to fund her college and did bake sales as fundraisers.

The Dardens’ book also brings to light interesting facts about why black colleges and institutions were founded in America, like why Montclair’s Washington Street YMCA and the black YWCA were founded. The black community took the responsibility of founding its own institutions as a reaction against racial bias from white institutions back a century ago in order to do the job correctly.

From Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine, the Darden family’s connection to Mary McLeod Bethune:

“Shortly before graduation, the news reached Aunt Norma of Mary McLeod Bethune’s monumental struggle to expand the school that she had started in 1904 with five students in a single room. Aunt Norma proudly joined the faculty there, twelve years after its inception.”

“Having spent most of her young life in black educational institutions, Aunt Norma tells us that many of them were started by Northern missionaries after the Civil War, and were originally intended to meet the needs of both black and white Southerners, becoming segregated only after laws were passed enforcing separation of the races. She fondly remembers the dedication of the integrated faculty of Talladega. (Alabama)”

Regarding a “slap” that lead to the founding of separate black institutions. These incidents allow us to understand the significance of black colleges and Institutions like the Washington Street YMCA and the black YWCA. The Darden’s Uncle C.L. recalls –

“In 1918, a ‘colored” schoolteacher was slapped in the face by a white superintendent of schools for alleged subordination. Eight teachers decided to strike, and the community boycotted the public school. Uncle C.L., along with the community leaders, organized an effort to collect money from Churches, lodges, and interested people to create an independent school. A building was brought and, despite a climate of fear and uncertainty about whether the school would be allowed to exist, three hundred children were enrolled by parents who willingly paid tuition. At the end of the school year the students presented a play, directed by Georgia Burke, later a Broadway actress) that attracted so many well-wishers that a vacant warehouse had to be rented for the performance. This became the annual event for all Wilson, and the community –run school became a model for black educators of the day during the 10 years that it lasted. Uncle C.L. was duly proud of the part he played in the school’s long success.”

Montclair has lost some important cultural landmarks like the Washington Street YMCA and the Aubrey Lewis House for future generations to connect with. But we can rejoice that the Dardens have immortalized important cultural legacies like the significance of black institutions and Mary McLeod Bethune’s stay in their home. Important Montclair History like the black YWCA is now highlighted by the Israel Crane House Museum, the James Howe House still standing at its original 364 Claremont Avenue location and a replica of the Martin Luther King Freedom Mural, painted by Montclair artist Don Miller for the National Library in Washington, is showcased by the Montclair Public library as a learning tool. Hopefully we’ll someday have our own Mary McLeod Bethune statue, like the one in the US Capitol Building, to pay tribute to her stay and her connection to Montclair.

Click here to sign up for Baristanet's free daily emails and news alerts.