Hurston & Bethune at the Woodson

BY IVELLIAM CEBALLO, Neighborhood News Bureau

ST. PETERSBURG — Two lively women sang a freedom hymn as they walked into a small, open gallery with no seats left empty.

The Florida Humanities Council hosted a Chautauqua performance starring the historically important African-American women Mary McLeod Bethune and Zora Neale Hurston at the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum last Thursday night. The series is called “Two takes on a Dream.”

Photos by Ivelliam Ceballo

Chautauqua scholars Ersula Odom Knox portrayed Bethune and Phyllis McEwen portrayed Hurston.

McEwen’s portrayal of Hurston kept the room laughing out loud. Hurston came to life through her Southern accent and sass when sharing about her experiences and in her back-and-forth with her friend Bethune. She has been portraying Hurston since 1991.

During the performance, the audience felt Hurston’s pride in her heritage when she said, “I was a Negro baby, a Negro girl and a Negro woman.”

Hurston was born in Alabama, but moved to Florida with her family as a toddler. She was a daughter of former slaves and dedicated her life to studying, collecting African American folklore and writing, according to her biography. She was influential to the Harlem Renaissance, a time when African Americans shed light on their culture through the arts.

“Zora inspires the creative spark for me,” McEwen said. “The way she shared her work inspires me to share my work.”

McEwen said that the genius in these two women is “frightening.” The two scholars contemplated on the fact that these two women were very busy and the span of their influence was immeasurable to society.

“People are afraid of Zora’s intellect,” McEwen said when referring to the author’s books.

McEwen’s favorite book written by Hurston is “Dust Tracks on a Road” because Hurston tells the story of her own life. Her struggles in life and the way she handled them were inspirational, according to McEwen.

Bethune was an unbelievable woman, according to Odom who has been portraying her for public programs for the humanities council since 2006.

“She did so many incredible things that people may not be aware of,” Odom said. “If [people] knew they would have personal pride because they can relate to her as an African-American woman.”

Originally from South Carolina, Bethune was born of former slaves and the only member in her family of 17 siblings that attended school, according to her biography. Odom shared her story with the audience and in her performance expressed Bethune’s love of learning and sharing her knowledge. While reminiscing on her childhood during the performance, Bethune remembered how much she enjoyed teaching her family the things she learned at school since they didn’t have the opportunity to receive a formal education. She was an educator since she was 10.

The name Bethune-Cookman University may come to mind when thinking of this determined woman. After teaching in Georgia and South Carolina, Bethune’s dream was to open her own school, so she did with $1.50 and five students, according to the university’s history.

“She was able to do so much in one lifetime,” Odom said. “She was able to pull people together of diverse backgrounds in order to achieve a common goal.”

One of the accomplishments that impress Odom the most was Bethune’s access to the White House. She advised five presidents and founded the National Council of Negro Women, a civil rights organization to help the progress of African-American women in society.

Odom’s study and research of Bethune has inspired her to be more like the civil rights activist and educator. “After what would Jesus do is what would Mary McLeod Bethune do,” she said.

Odom has written a new book, which will be released within the next two weeks. She tells the story of Dorris Rossreddick who was the first African-American woman to sit on the Hillsborough County school board and to chair it, according to the author.

McEwen like Odom is also a writer and an artist too. Her work will be displayed during an art show at Studio@620 in next month.

John Hayner, an 80-year-old philatelist from Clearwater attended the reenactment that evening. Hayner was there because he went to Eatonville, Fla., the day that Zora Neale Hurston’s stamp was issued on January 24, 2003, and he let her know at the end of the performance when guests were welcome to interact with the presenters.

Hayner lived in British Guinea as a child and appreciates African-American history because he experienced being the “only white boy in school.”

Thirty-five-year-old Miriam Romo from Meadowlan attended the performance to listen to poetry and to bring her son.

“My son is mixed. The more I know, the more I can transfer on to him,” Romo said referring to African-American history. “It’s important to know where you’re coming from,” she said.

Another mother, Ginande Jester from Clearwater, was also there for her 15-year-old daughter and is committed to taking her to events such as this once a month.

“My objective is to support local events so my daughter gets a sense of history,” Jester said.

Jester’s daughter, Zxamara, said it was cool that the women being portrayed had Florida roots.

Today their legacy lives on.

“Someone said we’re dead,” Bethune jokingly said to Hurston when the audience had time to converse with them after they finished the performance.

If you missed this dynamic duo, don’t fret. They will be performing together Wed., Feb. 24 at 1:30 p.m. at St. Petersburg College Midtown Center, 1048 22nd St. S. Registration is required, so please call (727) 864-7600 or logon to

Ivelliam Ceballo is a reporter in the Neighborhood News Bureau at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

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