McCleod, an American educator, was born on 10 July, 1875 in a log cabin on a cotton farm in South Carolina. She was the 15th of 17 children of former slaves. Most of her siblings were born into slavery while she was the first child born free. By the age of 5, she had begun working in the fields.
One day while accompanying her mum, delivering ‘white people’s’ wash, she was granted permission to visit a white children’s nursery. A book caught her eye. As she held it in her hands, a white girl grabbed it from her, telling her she didn’t know how to read. That was when McCleod realised the only difference between white and black folk was the ability to read and write.
At the earliest opportunity, McCleod attended a one-room black school house 8kms away. She’d walked there and back. When she got home, she would teach her parents and siblings what she had learnt.
In 1895, she got an opportunity to attend the Moody Bible Institute, becoming the first African American to graduate from the school. She decided to become a missionary so she could share what she had learnt but she was told no one wanted or needed a black missionary. She refused to give up her dreams and set her heart to teach.
In 1904, after moving to Florida, with $1.50 to her name, she started a school for African American girls near a dump. There were only 5 students. With limited resources, she had makeshift desks and chairs made from discarded crates and boxes. Students made ink from elderberry juice and pencils from burned wood.
The local Ku Klux Klan threatened to burn it down. Members waited outside the school but McCleod stood in the doorway, refusing to back down or leave her school. They eventually left her. Eventually, the community rallied around her with donations and support. By the end of the year, the school grew to 30 girls.
She was a passionate advocate for civil rights and suffrage. She became so well known for her work registering black voters, that the KKK threatened her once more. And like before, she refused to back down. She also stood against school segregation sought healthcare for black children.
She was later appointed as a national adviser to President Roosevelt and became part of what was known as his Black Cabinet, advising him on the welfare of black people. She would be called the ‘First Lady of the Struggle’. When she died on 18 May, 1955, she was honoured across the country. The New York Times noted that she was, ‘one of the most potent factors in the growth of interracial goodwill in America”.
In her words prior to her death, she wrote, “If I have a legacy to leave my people, it is my philosophy of living and serving. I think I have spent my life well. I pray now that my philosophy may be helpful to those who share my vision of a world of peace, progress, brotherhood and love”.
Whatever grace gifts/talents we have in our possession (and each one is valuable for the simple fact it comes from God!), let us steward them for the glory of his name! In doing so, we will discover the purpose, fulfilment and satisfaction all of us seek after. Let’s serve at the pleasure of our Lord! (Adapted from an article by, “It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.”)