I was lucky to find my Bethune-Cookman hoodie just before my Uber arrived to carry me to the airport. Well-worn and worn with pride, it always creates conversations on planes with folks who’ve never heard of it. “Bethune-Cookman College,” my row mate read slowly.
“It’s University now,” I said, wishing I wasn’t desperately looking forward to listening to the kinda-new Moneybagg Yo album on the flight and had time to explain how different the vibe was when it was Bethune-Cookman College. I chalked it up to him probably not understanding, so I left it at “We’re actually the great Bethune-Cookman University,” and I put in my headphones and raised my hood, flooding my brain with memories of the greatest HBCU.
On that campus in Daytona Beach, Fla., we grew up together, me and my comrades, and horribly managed the freedoms that come with being 18 and no longer jingling keys in our mothers’ doors together; gained our “freshman 15” together, give or take 10 pounds due to birth control; walked together to the Texaco station on MLK and International Boulevard every Friday night to trick the guy at the corner store into selling us Cisco and Mad Dog 2020 for whatever function that’d find us crunk.
And we stood together at the helm of a black woman’s never-ending destiny while simultaneously guiding our own ships toward greatness, surrounded by ’94 Caprice Classics, cartoon-painted Impala Super Sports, and undoubtedly the greatest chicken shacks and barbershops in all the land. This was unfiltered black magic, dripping slowly from the palms of Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, the godmother of black excellence.
On the former trash heap that became Bethune-Cookman University—because a black educator with a strong desire to leave a legacy of hope, love and the challenge of developing confidence to those who’d come after her sold sweet potato pies from a bicycle to raise $1.50 to purchase the land she’d use to educate her first students: Lena, Celeste, Ruth, Anna and Lucille—we often sat by the grave of our founder, wondering how we’d serve with greater passion and what we’d leave behind.
There’s something incredible about following in the actual footsteps of a black woman who founded a whole institution of higher learning in 1904 because she understood that education was the key to racial advancement. A black woman who lived and fought with intention, creating resources from nothing, walking through doors without knocking when others felt she should. There’s something more incredible about following in those same footsteps with others who’ve gone from strangers down the hall in Room 306 to brothers and sisters who will laugh with me for the rest of my life.
We probably didn’t need that fifth cup of Hennessy or that third shot of Jose, but no one complained because in that hotel suite three homecomings ago, the liquor brought back the memories our then-present lives attempted to make us forget. It gave us the courage to speak openly, laugh loudly and cry softly.
One spring morning, thousands of us sat on the quad and on White Hall Chapel stairs and stood on the Ave. (our regular meeting places before parties, after panty raids and just before 11 p.m. freshman curfews) in our sweat- and makeup-stained white tees and hoodies, tears flooding our mouths and our screams breaking city sound regulations, holding one another after tragically losing one of our own in a car accident. We became family. Not only because we wore “Wildcat” as a badge of honor, but because we’d gone through hell together, that morning and hundreds of other mornings, and held tight one another through the fear.
Mary said, “If we accept and acquiesce in the face of discrimination, we accept the responsibility ourselves. We should, therefore, protest openly everything ... that smacks of discrimination or slander.” With those words, on May 10, 2017, my family shut down U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. We turned our backs to whatever it was she attempted to offer, then walked proudly to the grave of our founder, standing there, proudly Mary’s kids, loving on one another in that ol’ B-C spirit!
Darnell Lamont Walker, the man in the ugly suit with the sunny disposition, resides mostly in Johannesburg, South Africa, after successfully escaping American tyranny. After a few degrees—two from Bethune-Cookman University—and years of Hollywood, a few awards and too many cups of tequila, he’s focused on collecting and telling those stories around the world that would otherwise be carried into graves and urns. He is a filmmaker and writer.