By Katie McCabe
In paying tribute to Dovey Johnson Roundtree on Sunday, March 10, the marchers and singers, the speakers and ribbon-cutters, the builders and developers who gather at the site of The Roundtree Residences will be celebrating one of Washington’s most acclaimed legal heroines. In a larger sense, too, they will be saluting the honor roll of giants on whose shoulders she stood: Pauli Murray, A. Philip Randolph, Thurgood Marshall, James M. Nabrit, Jr., the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Each was essential to some aspect of her formation, Roundtree says in her award-winning 2009 autobiography Justice Older than the Law, written with Washington journalist Katie McCabe. But Roundtree makes clear that no one influenced her more than the person who chose her to lead the vanguard of women in the military in the early months of World War II: the renowned activist Mary McLeod Bethune. It was her military service, Roundtree says, that placed her in the thick of history at a critical time, and turned her into an activist. This, she writes in Justice Older than the Law, is the debt she owes to Bethune, a daughter of slaves who began life picking cotton in the fields of South Carolina with her 16 siblings, and rose to become an advisor to four presidents, a New Deal “wheel,” and the founder of a college and a national women’s organization.
Dovey Roundtree’s connection to Bethune originated in the improbable friendship that Roundtree’s grandmother, Rachel Graham, forged with the great woman in the 1920’s, when Bethune was barnstorming through the South to recruit members for her National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs. Though Roundtree’s “Grandma Rachel” had only a third grade education, her status as a minister’s wife and community activist placed her within Bethune’s orbit, and the two formed a bond born out of their common passion for justice. As a child, Roundtree watched, enthralled, as the regal, silk-hatted Bethune conferred with her grandmother on the family’s broken down sofa, discussing the future of black children in a voice Roundtree would later describe as “so rich, so cultivated, so filled with authority that it held me fast.” Roundtree grew up hearing stories of how the young Bethune had captured the attention of a black missionary who’d pulled her from the South Carolina fields and paid for her education. When Bethune was barred from African missionary work because of her race, she turned her energies to the fight for what was then called “Negro advancement.”
In a cabin with five pupils, Dr. Bethune had founded the normal school in Florida that would eventually become Bethune-Cookman College, using packing crates for desks and elderberry juice for ink, and raising funds by selling sweet potato pies. Most inspiring of all to the young Dovey Johnson Roundtree was the tale of Dr. Bethune’s defiance of the Klan. When they’d ridden onto her college campus threatening to burn it to the ground if she didn’t halt her campaign for black voting rights, she’d turned the campus floodlights upon them, leading her students in the singing of hymns until the men in the white hoods finally rode off into the night. Roundtree, who well remembered Klan raids through her neighborhood, was awed by Bethune’s bravery.
Mary McLeod Bethune, for her part, had clearly been impressed with “Rachel Graham’s granddaughter,” as she called Roundtree when she met with her as a young adult, newly arrived in Washington, DC and looking for federal employment after her graduation from Spelman College and three years of teaching. Bethune moved swiftly, taking on Roundtree as an office assistant while grooming her to take her place in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps that had just been created by an act of Congress.
The prospect of serving in a white man’s Army terrified Roundtree. Still, she could not refuse Bethune’s summons. Bethune saw military service as a way for African Americans to break down walls that had proven impenetrable by any other means. She felt so strongly about the matter that she’d enlisted her closest political ally, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, in the fight to bring black women into the first class of WAAC officers.
From Roundtree’s perch in the corner of Bethune’s office at 1812 Ninth Street, N.W., she watched history unfold on the morning that Dr. Bethune and Mrs. Roosevelt wrestled over the thorny issue of the timing of black female officer admission. The Army, fearful of racial trouble, had pulled back on its original promise to allow African American women into the first officer training class, and the First Lady shared that fear. The new plan involved waiting until the Corps was underway, and admitting black officer trainees later. But Dr. Bethune would not relinquish the historical role she’d carved out for the 40 African American women she’d personally selected to enter the Corps. Quietly but relentlessly, she pressed Mrs. Roosevelt to stand behind her.
“What am I going to tell my girls?” she asked the First Lady.
“Don’t tell them anything yet, Mary,” Mrs. Roosevelt replied. “Give me some time.”
Roundtree prepared herself for a wait, but it was only a few days later, she recalled in her autobiography, that the call came from the First Lady, letting Dr. Bethune know it would be as she had wanted: the 40 black women she’d hand picked for the first officer training class at Fort Des Moines would enter with the white women, and be commissioned with them. At that moment, Roundtree knew that she must accept Dr. Bethune’s challenge. She entered the WAAC in May, 1942, proclaiming the vision she’d absorbed from Bethune as she traveled through the South, recruiting black women for the WAC. At every stage of her long career, Roundtree later wrote, she walked in the footsteps of her revered mentor.
Dovey Roundtree spent the rest of her life paying back her debt to Mary McLeod Bethune. For 40 years, from the time of Bethune’s death in 1955 to the time Roundtree retired in 1996, she served as General Counsel, pro bono, to the National Council of Negro Women, the organization Bethune founded. And in every forum where she spoke, she invoked Dr. Bethune’s name.
When The Roundtree Residences opens on March 10, Mary McLeod Bethune will be honored, both by her grand niece Ella Scarborough, a close friend of Roundtree’s who will travel from Charlotte, NC, to speak at the ceremony, and by Roundtree’s 17-year-old grandson, James Andrew Pritchett, of Spotsylvania, VA. Scarborough, a veteran of civil rights protests in South Carolina, is the head of the Black Women’s Caucus of Charlotte-Mecklenburg and the first African American woman to win an at-large seat on Charlotte’s City Council. James Pritchett, who grew up in Roundtree’s Washington DC home, will read excerpts from a document that his beloved “Nana,” as he calls her, placed just below the U.S. Constitution in importance: The Last Will and Testament of Mary McLeod Bethune.
“I leave you love,” Bethune wrote. “Love builds. It is positive and helpful. It is more beneficial than hate…I leave you hope…I leave you finally a responsibility to our young people…Our children must never lose their zeal for building a better world. They must not be discouraged from aspiring to greatness…Nor must they forget that the masses of our people are still underprivileged, ill-housed, impoverished and victimized by discrimination. The Freedom Gates are half ajar. We must pry them fully open.”
This was Bethune’s vision, and Dovey Roundtree’s as well. In every corner of The Roundtree Residences, that vision stands.