When author and essayist Ersula Knox Odom performed a spirited recitation of her book, At Sula’s Feet, a friend encouraged her to contact the Florida Humanities Council about portraying the Chautauqua character, Mary McLeod Bethune.
Initially, Odom, of Tampa, said she could not imagine herself in such a position, but agreed to investigate the opportunity to “stop her friend from asking.”
When Odom visited the council, she said that they “described what being a Chautauqua character was, and brought my attention to Bethune. I quickly became excited about the possibility of doing it.”
Odom will portray Bethune, educator and founder of Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, in a Jan. 31 performance at the African-American Research Library and Cultural Center near Fort Lauderdale.
Chautauqua is an organized adult education movement made popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. People in rural areas were hungry for news, education, culture and entertainment, and the Chautauqua Movement was a timely response to that need.
“It’s more of a humanities program than art,” said Susan Lockwood, the council’s grants director. “What the council has done to convey history is to develop characters from the past. They can include scholars, actors or writers.”
Tanya Simons-Oparah, the Broward library system’s director of outreach services, said, “Dr. Bethune was a tremendous history maker and was instrumental in her time in the area of education and uplifting the image of blacks in the U.S.”
This is the third time the African-themed library has requested a Chautauqua character of African descent from the council, Simons-Oparah said.
“I think the timing is important as well,” she continued. “We have a new president now, and she [Bethune] was one of the pioneers that makes where he is possible.”
In the Chautauqua Movement, the person serving as the character does a 35-minute presentation in costume, Lockwood said, and then answers questions from the audience in character.
“They also answer questions as a scholar that the character cannot answer,” she added.
Bethune was born one of 17 children to former slaves Samuel and Patsy McLeod in Mayesville, South Carolina, on July 10, 1875. Although best known for her role as president and founder of Bethune-Cookman University, she had many accomplishments, including serving as consultant to the U.S. Secretary of War to select the first female officer candidates; president of the National Association of Colored Women; delegate and advisor to national conferences on education, child welfare and home ownership.
Odom said a photo of Bethune with President Roosevelt exists, “and in it, her hand is on the back of his chair. For her to be in the position to do that, and be photographed, there had to have been a lot behind her. This was in the 30s and 40s, so she definitely had influence.”
Odom also said that black officials in Washington at that time would “meet at Bethune’s apartment and strategize. She was responsible for starting the black cabinet.”
Odom said about portraying Bethune, “I studied for it, learned all the facts; grew into the role. I have to present her in a non-factual way, in first person.”
She added that the performance is “not just giving dates and times and lists of things, but providing answers in a way that is her, her words and thoughts.”
As a child growing up in Springfield, Georgia, Odom admits that her interest was not in history, but in writing, old photographs, stories, “and listening to conversations had by my grandmother and other older people.”
She shared that her grandmother kept an old Tampa cigar box under her bed. “I often pulled it out, went through the stamps, letters; I was fascinated with memorabilia, things that were not from my generation.
“I lived with my grandmother,” she recalled, “and that is a much appreciated aspect of my life. I would not change it for the world.”
Odom, who travels throughout the state of Florida performing in libraries, schools and other organizations, admitted that her study of Bethune’s life has moved her.
“I am affected by her life, her accomplishments,’’ Odom said. “I feel an awesome responsibility not to dishonor her name, as she gives me courage.”
Photo: Ersula Knox Odom
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Faith, Scholarship, Service: Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune.
WHERE: African-American Research Library and Cultural Center, 2650 Sistrunk Blvd., near Fort Lauderdale.
WHEN: Saturday, Jan. 31, from 2 to 4 p.m.
COST: Free and open to the public.
CONTACT: 954-625-2800. For group reservations of 20 or more, call 954-357-7348.