Ceremony Takes on Added Significance for Local Pastor
Forty-nine years ago, the Rev. Dr. Diane Dixon-Proctor recalled traveling with her family on a crowded bus as it rolled down Interstate 95 en route to the nation's capital from Harlem, N.Y. As each mile marker passed, Dixon-Proctor's heart beat faster in anticipation of their arrival.
Dixon-Proctor and her family joined the 250,000 other civil rights activists who converged on Washington, D.C. for the historic 1963 March on Washington. But there was one particular guest who the teenager could not wait to see.
"Mary McLeod Bethune had such an impact on African-American women," said Dixon-Proctor, 65. "I grew up in an era when she was still out running and moving and making a difference. Being able to share today brings back some warm memories. I think about my grandmother, who was a member of the National Council of Negro Women in New York, and she always told me to strive to do my best and never let anyone tell me that I could not do something because I am a woman."
Dixon-Proctor, who is now the pastor at Lincoln Park United Methodist Church in Northeast, along with a host of other guests, participated in festivities to celebrate the 137th birthday of educator and civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune on Thursday, July 12 at Lincoln Park, directly across the street from Lincoln Park United Methodist Church.
Nearly 100 people attended the spirited birthday celebration, which was held at the park's north end. Rows of folding chairs lined the lawn underneath a massive white tent that event staff assembled in anticipation of evening showers. Two dozen National Park Service staffers, dressed in official green and gray uniforms directed guest to the seating area.
Dr. Barbara L. Shaw, former national chair of the National Council of Negro Women, presided over the ceremony and offered opening remarks. Members of the Joint Armed Forces Color Guard posted the colors and Navy Band vocalist Adam Tyler eloquently crooned the national anthem.
Dr. John H. Bracey, professor of African-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, delivered the ceremony's keynote address. Bracey regaled the crowd with stories of Bethune's sense of humor, which was met with laughter and applause. But his tone quickly turned serious as he spoke of Bethune's passion and devotion to the National Association of Colored Women, the National Council of Negro Women and the civil rights movement. Bracey also implored this generation to embody and emulate the spirit and passion of Bethune and other pioneers who made it their life's mission to ensure a better tomorrow for those who come after them.
Kathy English Holt, founder of iThings 2 Collard Greens, a summer program in Northwest that aims to contribute to the full development of young girls from adolescence through womanhood, took advantage of the ceremony and used Bethune's accomplishments as an example for some of the youngsters in the program. Eight girls, ages 5-6, dressed in white iThings 2 Collard Greens T-shirts, dutifully stood by English Holt's side throughout the ceremony and listened attentively every time she spoke as they soaked in the interactive history lesson.
"We brought the young girls who are in Mary McLeod Bethune's group to honor Mrs. Bethune on her 137th birthday and to teach our young ones about the great African-American women of the 20th century and about their contributions," said English Holt, 55, of Northwest. "We want our girls to know that they also have the same power, gifts and talents, and that they are living in a time where they need to begin to make a huge difference."
Volunteers from the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House in Northwest – the first headquarters of the National Council of Negro Women, founded by Bethune in 1935 – gathered underneath a white tent in front of a table that featured sale items such as coffee cups and books by Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois and Frederick Douglass.
"It's a great opportunity for the National Park Service to be able to come out into the community and to teach people about Mary McLeod Bethune," said volunteer Tanisha Wright, 34, of Northeast. "I met five people today who didn't know who she was or about the legacy that she left. If they hadn't seen this today, they wouldn't have known that there was also a house here in the city that would give them information about her. It's an awesome opportunity."
As the two-hour event came to a close, a procession of National Park Service staffers and National Council of Negro women board members carried three wreaths with radiant red, white and blue carnations to the front of the park's massive bronze Mary McLeod Bethune statue. Guests followed, faced the statue and belted out Let Me Call You Sweetheart and We Are Climbing Jacob's Ladder.
While Dixon-Proctor offered the benediction, the faint sound of thunder could be heard in the background and a light breeze blew through the air.
"It feels like an honor," Dixon-Proctor said with a smile as the ceremony came to a close. "It really makes me feel good."