Commentary: A Gamble Helped Black Students Thrive


By William Mattox


On the similarities between Betsy DeVos and another education philanthropist.

Something curious happened at a Black History Month program held at Florida A&M University last week. An actress portraying African-American educator Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955) praised someone with a demographic profile eerily similar to Betsy DeVos, who earlier that day was confirmed by the Senate as education secretary. As the program unfolded, it became easy to see why the performer decided to speak up.

When Bethune started her Daytona School for Negro Girls in 1904, the education establishment had little interest in seeing young black children receive good instruction. So she looked elsewhere for help. Bethune reached out to James N. Gamble, son of the Procter & Gamble co-founder and a regular vacationer in Daytona. Bethune told Gamble she wanted more than money. She needed someone who would share her vision for giving underprivileged black children more opportunities.

Gamble was so impressed with Bethune and her students that he bought into her vision—wholeheartedly. He not only became the chairman of Bethune’s school, but enlisted the support of other wealthy businessmen, including John D. Rockefeller.

The influx of financial resources helped. Bethune had previously made school desks out of discarded boxes and crates, and ink for pens out of elderberry juice. But outside funding didn’t solve everything.

During her performance last week, Ersula Odom re-enacted the story of how Bethune and her students huddled one night in their schoolhouse as an angry mob of Ku Klux Klan members assembled outside. Suddenly, the voice of one schoolgirl pierced the darkness, singing the comforting hymn “God Will Take Care of You.” When Bethune and the other students joined in the resounding chorus, the Klansmen realized that they were up against forces they dare not cross. Sheepishly, they turned and walked away.

I realize some people think Mrs. DeVos should be disqualified from public service because she supports giving students more opportunities, including the option of attending faith-based schools where such hymns are often sung today. But I see in Mrs. DeVos echoes of James N. Gamble—another Midwestern Protestant Republican with a family fortune from a cleaning-products company. Like Gamble, Mrs. DeVos has given generously to help disadvantaged kids receive a good education, and she has fully bought into a philosophy that places the needs of children ahead of the interests of the education establishment.

That’s something that should give pause to all of the new education secretary’s detractors—especially those who last Friday stood in a schoolhouse door to block Mrs. DeVos from entering.


Editor’s Note: A version of this article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal on February 14, 2017.

Featured Image: Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial, Washington, D.C. Courtesy of Library of Congress.