In 1991, Marcia Hinckley interviewed Dr. Ethna Beulah Winston and her sister Lucy Winston White in support of her master’s thesis, We just went on with it: The Black Experience in Windsor, Connecticut, 1790-1950. She recently expanded her research to adapt a portion of her thesis for this article. The full text of the original thesis is available in the WHS research library.
Read part I here.
June 4, 1944. Ethna Beulah Winston, after years of squeezing study into summer vacations from her job as Dean of Women at Tougaloo College in Mississippi, was awarded her Ph.D. in education from Columbia University in New York.
She must have hoped her doctorate would open more doors to jobs with power to effect change in the social order. Her sister, Lucy White, mused that Dr. Winston may have wanted to lead a college or university. “We always called her Mrs. Bethune,” she said, referring to Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955), founder of Bethune-Cookman College (now University) and member of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Black Cabinet. However, Mrs. White echoed Dr. Winston when saying, “Skin color has made a difference, especially to Beulah.” Dark-skinned and female, Dr. Winston would undoubtedly have faced hurdles in career advancement. Though the situation was changing by the 1940s, even Howard University, a historically Black college, had not hired its first African American president—a man—until 1926. “I don’t know,” Mrs. White pondered, “whether Beulah got what she wanted or not.”
Whatever Dr. Winston’s goals were in academia, correspondence between Beulah Winston and Mary McLeod Bethune from 1944 to 1952 suggests that she looked for opportunities to follow her passion: innovating training and community consulting for the benefit of children, especially African American children. With the encouragement of an advisor at Columbia, Dr. Winston sought employment with the Children’s Bureau, then a division within the United States Department of Labor. Her exposure, during her doctoral study, to child welfare problems in communities around the country seemed like good preparation for the position of Director of Guidance and Educational Research regarding programs for African American children.
Dr. Winston not only wrote to the chief of the Children’s Bureau outlining her qualifications, but also to Mrs. Bethune, whom she had met, heard speak, and admired. She hoped Mrs. Bethune could use some of her influence on her behalf. She wrote, “Since there is such a closeness in the problem on which I have been working with your interests and efforts, I do hope there will be opportunity to render help in some regard.” While also noting the strong possibility that she would accept a position for the fall of 1944 as Dean of Women and Associate Professor of Education at Clark College in Atlanta, she made it clear that:
That, too, is in line with my recent training. The particular phase of educational work which is to be done with prospective teachers for many different types of communities in the South seems also to offer opportunity for cooperation in the kind of program for smaller children now being proposed by the Children’s Bureau.
[letter dated May 23, 1944]
The job with the Children’s Bureau did not pan out. However, she succeeded in establishing a long-term relationship with Mrs. Bethune whom she viewed as a mentor and role model for herself and for her students. “I’m trying to make them feel some of the inspiration you have given me,” she exclaimed, following the visit she’d arranged between her Clark College students and Mrs. Bethune. Several years later, while Director of Student Personnel Services at State Agricultural and Mechanical College in Orangeburg, S.C., Dr. Winston affirmed her view of Mrs. Bethune as a figure of hope. In writing to her about the reaction of her own students to having heard Mrs. Bethune on a national radio broadcast, she stated,
We thank you and offer our deepest heartfelt gratitude for what you mean to us all….In the three and a half years of working here, there has been chance to see much change. It goes beyond the work with our students on the campus. You have strengthened the vision of many young people. I hope it will be possible to help them to find ways of realizing their dreams and living up to the ambition which seems newly stirred within them.
[letter dated March 23, 1949]
A letter dated April 3, 1950 from Mrs. Bethune to Dr. Winston reveals that the admiration and affection between the two women was mutual. It also suggests that Mrs. White was right that Dr. Winston struggled in finding whatever job it was that she most wanted,
My dear, dear Beulah:
Thank you for your card and for your greetings. I am sorry you could not come down with the others to see me. We would have had one delightful time.
I am getting very much better. I hope the way is opening up for you. God bless you and know that I am always willing to do what I can to push you forward.
Mary McLeod Bethune, Founder, President-Emeritus
Perhaps searching for her best professional fit or perhaps aiming to initiate changes in each place on which others could build, Dr. Winston was on faculty for only a few years at each of several colleges over the course of the next decade or so: teacher of English at Howard University, chairperson of the Education Department back at Tougaloo, and English teacher at Elizabeth City Teachers College.
She remembered teaching at Howard the longest, but reluctantly having to leave because she could not meet their publishing requirement. Her career in academia ended with many years teaching English and advising the Reading Club at Calvin Coolidge High School in Washington, D.C. In the early 1970s, when she was in her 70s, she finally retired.
In addition to her professional work, Dr. Winston—along with so many other African American women—committed enormous effort in professional and volunteer organizations geared towards improving education and equality for people of color. A member of innumerable organizations, she was most ardently engaged with the organization Mrs. Bethune founded in 1935, the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) to amplify the power of what women were doing to improve the lives of African Americans. African American newspaper articles about Dr. Winston’s activities in various organizations suggest that, alongside Mrs. Bethune, she had emerged as a leader in her own right.
In 1950, for example, the Arkansas State Press reported that Dr. Winston, together with Mary McLeod Bethune and others, was among the “Dynamic and outstanding personalities appearing before the [NCNW] convention.” The Jackson Advocate gave more detail:
With a program highlighting women’s interests in labor and industry, children and youth and the United Nations, the National Council of Negro Women will hold its fifteenth annual convention in Washington, D.C.…with the theme ‘Women Looking Forward – Toward Peace and Security.’…
A special feature of the convention will be a Workshop for Parents and Workers with Children and Youth in preparation for the Mid-Century White House Conference on Children and Youth. The Workshop, under the direction of Dr. E. Beulah Winston, National Chairman of the Youth Conservation Department of NCNW, will be geared to the theme … of the development in children of the mental emotional and spiritual qualities essential to individual happiness and responsible citizenship.
After retiring, though in her seventies, Dr. Winston earned needed income as the live-in companion to her sorority sister, Dr. Norma Boyd, another dynamic woman who was fifteen years her senior. In 1913, Dr. Boyd had been an incorporator of the first Black sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha; in 1959, she had founded the Women’s International Religious Fellowship (WIRF). As Dr. Winston described it, the WIRF helped children worldwide by holding bazaars and such to raise monies to distribute to children around the world through their country’s embassy in Washington.
Dr. Winston’s involvement with this organization became one of her greatest life pleasures. She helped Dr. Boyd with WIRF until Dr. Boyd’s death in 1985. She even got her sister Lucy to come down from Connecticut to volunteer with some of its activities. When Dr. Boyd died, she left life-use of her home to Dr. Winston, who continued to be as involved in WIRF as her health permitted.
To realize her dream, Beulah Winston had to leave home, but her family and Windsor were always tugging at her heart. Throughout her life she returned frequently, financially aided her siblings, and showered affection on her grandniece and nephews. Her grandnephew Donnie reminisced fondly about her always bringing them books and the pleasure he had when visiting her in Washington. Donna, her grandniece, recalled Dr. Winston’s love of children and the time she helped Donna and her brothers build a tent on their front yard.
Dr. Winston never forgot her Windsor roots, her public school education, and the moral support she received from members of her family. She was certainly proud, however, of her accomplishments and the endorsements she received along the way, presumably by people like Mrs. Bethune and Dr. Boyd. When asked of what she was most proud in her life, her answer reflected her passion for helping others improve their own lives: she mentioned the assistance she’d been able to give her family when it was needed, the business courses she’d taught that facilitated people’s getting jobs and businesses’ getting competent employees, and her role in improving the lives of children around the world through the WIRF.
Dr. Winston’s memorial service program, 1993. | Courtesy of Marcia Hinckley.
Dr. Ethna Beulah Winston’s grave in Palisado Cemetery. Photo by Sue Tait Porcaro.
On October 1, 1991, she was honored in her home state with Hartford Seminary’s Alumnae Award that noted the master’s degree she earned there back in 1939. Despite dissuasion from people and circumstances when she was growing up in Windsor, Ethna Beulah Winston succeeded in joining some of the most powerful African American women in the nation as a stalwart leader. She had devoted her life to doing everything she could to improve the lives of her family and her world.
Dr. Winston died November 9, 1993 and is buried in Palisado Cemetery near her parents and siblings.
Much of this updated version is based on the letters held in the Mary McLeod Bethune Collection, Bethune-Cookman University Archives. Letters referenced re. application to Children’s Bureau are in Box 2R, File Folder (FF) 574. Letters quoted: May 23, 1944, Box 21, FF 354; March 23, 1949, Box 2J, FF 378; April 3, 1950, Box 3J, FF 273. Thanks to Brandon Nightingale, M.A., Archives Coordinator, who made them available to me.