Outside of the aunt who raised me and put up with all of my devilment, I have always considered the three greatest women to walk the earth in modern American history to be Mary McLeod Bethune, Eleanor Roosevelt and Charlotte Hawkins Brown. (Study ‘em: you’ll be equally impressed.)
Mickey Michaux was blessed to see them up close and personal.
Michaux, the former state representative from Durham, and I were talking several months ago when he mentioned he’d attended Palmer Memorial Institute, the finishing school Brown in 1902 founded near Greensboro.
I told him how much I worshipped the ground upon which Bethune, Roosevelt and Brown walked.
“I saw all three of them,” he stated matter-of-factly.
At one time?
"Yes." He then proceeded to tell me where that ground was - right down the road a piece near Greensboro.
As Women’s History Month speeds toward an end, I called Michaux, figuring it’d be cool to write about a time three colossuses strode a small N.C. private school campus at one time.
I declare, it’s a wonder the earth didn’t tilt on its axis from the weight of all that intellectual heft in one place at one time. It’s also impossible to imagine any one month being long enough to adequately celebrate American women - when you could learn about each of those three alone for a month and still not learn everything worth knowing.
Bethune, internationally renowned as an educator, founded a college – it’s now called Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach. I was smitten after reading, as a child, that her resourceful students and she had to go into the woods to pick blackberries to make ink for the cash-strapped school’s inkwells. I may have even tried to make my own ink that way but kept eating the blackberries.
Roosevelt changed forever the presumed role of First Lady from picking the White House drapes and doilies for the coffee tables to championing the rights of the underdog. She is credited with nudging hubby FDR further to the left on important social issues than he was initially inclined to go.
Besides that, she was a helluva newspaper columnist.
And they all came together on a 400-acre campus founded by a Henderson native who wanted to give Southern Black children the same exposure to education she'd gotten when her family had moved to Massachusetts during her childhood.
Michaux was 14 or 15, he said, his second year at America’s premier – if not only – finishing school for upper class Black students.
“Dr. Brown had a habit of calling ‘chapel’ anytime she wanted to, so one day she called us to chapel and Dr. Bethune and Mrs. Roosevelt were there,” he said.
At the time, he didn’t appreciate the historical significance of the moment, nor did at least one of his classmates. “When Dr. Brown introduced her as ‘the First Lady,’ a fellow behind me said ‘First Lady of what?’ Somebody whispered ‘Of the United States, fool,’” Michaux remembered with a laugh.
He said he doesn’t remember much of what the women said, but the memory of them gracing the school with their presence is indelible.
Michaux also doesn't remember why he wanted so badly to attend the small, private school in Sedalia.
He thinks it was because he knew some students who’d gone there and seemed to enjoy it. They included two granddaughters of John Merrick, founder of N.C. Mutual Life Insurance Co.
“It was a small school, no more than 200 students," he said. "After the first year, my parents asked if I wanted to transfer to Choate (in Connecticut) or another finishing school up North. I said ‘No.’ I wanted to stay right where I was, because it was the kind of place that once you got there and got to know folks, you didn’t want to leave.”
Eleanor must have considered the trip to the bucolic campus payback for a missed visit, because in her March 22, 1945 syndicated My Day column, she gave the school a shout-out: “We made the 10 o'clock train for Greensboro, and arrived yesterday morning, unfortunately too late to go to Dr. Charlotte Hawkins Brown's school at Sedalia, in which my mother-in-law was interested.”
She did visit Bennett College in Greensboro during that March trip, though.
Another perk of attending Palmer – as if a world-class education wasn’t enough – was what happened on the campus in 1948: “We had Nat King Cole in concert for a week, every morning in chapel,” he said. The crooner had earlier that year married Maria Hawkins Ellington, Charlotte Hawkins Brown’s orphaned niece, Carole, a student at the scgool.
The famous singer and his wife spent a week on campus arranging to adopt her.
Dr. Brown died in 1961, and Palmer Memorial Institute, the school she founded, nurtured, loved, closed a mere decade later.