Celebrating a Legacy of Leadership and Service Mrs. Bettye Sue McConnaughey McLaurin
Motivated by her passion for early childhood education and its impact on long-term success, Mrs. Bettye Sue McConnaughey McLaurin set out to improve early learning initiatives for North Carolina’s most precious resource, its children. A statuesque, warm and outgoing leader who never lost focus on that goal, McLaurin was a powerful voice for the least of these – in North Carolina and across the nation – right up until her passing at the age of 90 on June 27, 2020. Those who knew her best admired her persistence and her sunny demeanor, attributes that would drive her to high achievement and sustained success in every endeavor she undertook.
A native of Kannapolis, NC, McLaurin was a 1945 graduate of George Washington Carver High School. McLaurin periodically reflected on the great educators of her childhood who created a lasting impression on her and helped her to see the eternal impact of a good education. She also fondly remembered how her parents boarded school teachers in their home for many years, positive experiences that sealed her decision to become an educator. A natural teacher with a magical gift for effective communication, she was often asked to assist other teachers with classroom instruction while still in grade school and high school. With so much exposure to education early and often, McLaurin knew that her divine calling was to teach. In 2018 she was inducted into the Hall of Fame for the Kannapolis African America Museum and Cultural Center for Lifetime Achievement.
Last year, McLaurin celebrated her 70th college reunion. She was an exemplary student who excelled in all areas of her studies, McLaurin enrolled at Bennett College in Greensboro at the tender age of 15. She excelled at Bennett and graduated with a B.A. in Elementary Education at the age of 18. Upon graduation, McLaurin returned to her home-town school and taught 4th grade. She stated, “It was a joy to stand where so many great educators stood before me. I wanted to uphold the legacy they provided.” That assignment launched a career in education and administration that would span 43 years. She served for five years at Carver (from 1949 to 1954) and one year in Lumberton, NC. She joined the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools System (CMS) in 1955 and served for thirty-seven years. In 1961 she received her Principal’s certificate and was appointed principal of Morgan Elementary School in the historic Cherry community of Charlotte. She also served as Principal of Seversville Elementary School, Seversville Child Development Center, Plaza Road Elementary, Piedmont Open Optional Middle School and Sedgefield Elementary. She established a well-earned reputation for excellence, no-nonsense leadership, and a deep-seated passion for the wellbeing of the students.
McLaurin continued her studies at Appalachian State University and Howard University. She earned a Master’s degree in Administration and Supervision from New York University in 1958. She began her doctoral studies in 1973, just as the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools began to desegregate but did not complete that pursuit. At the height of the civil rights movement, from 1961 to 1968, McLaurin co-hosted a television program, “The Hour of Opportunity,” on WSOC-TV. This program provided opportunities for minorities to share their community organizations, talents and expertise with the Charlotte metropolitan viewing audience. Broadcast early on Sunday mornings, the show was popular with both younger and more mature viewers.
An innovator and much sought-after educator, McLaurin was known for her creative approach to education, which prompted many consulting opportunities throughout her career and beyond. As a visionary she worked with then President, Dr. Lionel Newsome and Vice President of Academic Affairs, Dr. Jack S. Brayboy with establishing the Little Smith House at Johnson C. Smith University in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s as a “student teaching model” for early childhood education majors of the university. A staunch proponent of always putting the children first, McLaurin was instrumental in the development of open education in CMS. She traveled the southeast region for CMS to visit open classroom (facility design) and open education (self-paced curriculum design) schools, gleaning best practices she was instrumental in both open concepts being implemented in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district. During her years as principal of Piedmont Open Optional Middle School, Sonjia Gantt Gibson, retired news anchor of WCNC-TV and current Executive Director of Charlotte-Mecklenburg County Public Schools Foundation, recalls an encounter with Mrs. McLaurin while a student at Piedmont. “I will never forget lobbying to her for us to have cheerleaders at Piedmont. She really made us work for it in a very beautiful way…I learned lobbying skills, negotiating skills and project management skills from the process while in middle school!”
McLaurin was an active member of Friendship Missionary Baptist Church (FMBC) in Charlotte for over 50 years. She served on its Board of Trustees for 12 years and as the Chairman of the Board of the FMBC Child Development Center (renamed as the Marizetta Kerry Child Development Center) from its inception until her retirement after 18 years of service. Her desire to provide quality early childhood education was not limited to public education, as she also assisted community and faith-based preschools and day care centers with establishing services to impact the lives of young children. She also assisted numerous community-based childcare facilities with licensing, professional standards, and systems of care. These opportunities were an extension of her lifelong devotion to ensuring that all staff were sufficiently trained and had the capacity to provide quality instruction and guidance for early childhood development. Dr. Clifford Jones, the Senior Pastor at FMBC, recalls the establishment of the Friendship Child Development Center in 1970. Remembering Sis. Bettye McLaurin, he shared, “For over 50 years the legacy established by Pastor Coleman Kerry and Sis. Bettye is still alive and effective. She worked, she served, she loved the Lord and she wanted to see teachers and students excel. What she has done for this church family will be alive in the hearts of many forever.”
Prior to retiring from CMS in 1992, McLaurin was also very engaged in civic, cultural, faith-based and fraternal endeavors. She served on several Boards of Directors including the Mint Museum of Charlotte, the Bethlehem Center and the Arts and Sciences Council. She was an officer of the National Pan Hellenic Council and was elected to three terms as the National President of Charms Inc. (formerly known as the Squaws, Inc.), a national social, civic and cultural organization established in 1952. Lynada Coleburn Bryant, the current National President of Charms, Inc. remembers McLaurin fondly. “I have known Charm Bettye McLaurin since I was a student at North Carolina Central University in the 70s. I always looked up to her and admired her! She was a woman of strong character, with a kind and nurturing nature. Our organization grew during her six-year tenure as National President. She always had a great smile, a warm hug and words of wisdom for you!” Also, a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, McLaurin served in many capacities throughout her 70-year membership.
Having lived and worked on the front lines of Jim Crow, desegregation and integration, McLaurin was very involved in promoting education equality, eliminating disparities and reducing the inequities in early learning initiatives. Most recently, she worked closely with community-based organizations serving metro Atlanta residents. Since 2002, McLaurin assisted her daughter, Danette McLaurin Glass, with developing and managing a youth and family enrichment agency that served thousands of youth and families annually. The agency currently provides technical assistance for public health, juvenile justice and public safety initiatives which serve thousands of families in Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina.
In 2017, McLaurin was the driving force behind the establishment of the Center for Family and Community Wellness, Inc. (The Well), a national research, advocacy and training organization focused on eliminating education, health and economic disparities, and the creation of a just and equitable society. The Well has teams in eight states and Washington, DC, with several cities in various stages of development. McLaurin traveled the nation speaking to elected officials, meeting with business leaders and advocating for the dedication of resources to real community issues, such as the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Carey Sipp, Southeast Regional Director for ACEs Connection, saw the impact of McLaurin’s work firsthand. “McLaurin and her daughter Danette were modern day Freedom Riders, traveling all over to meetings that would bring about better healthcare, justice reform or opportunities for others. I got to witness three generations of this family working together on the same objective – freedom, health and justice for all.”
One of McLaurin’s greatest inspirations was providing over 500 kindergarten students the opportunity to ride a train, airplane, motor coach or boat during their early learning years. She loved providing positive enriching exposures to students and faculty. She also saw as her greatest blessing the opportunity to work beside dedicated and compassionate professionals who unselfishly served children and educators day after day, year after year. She loved hearing former students and colleagues share about their lives, careers and families. Many prominent educators, elected officials and business leaders were taught, inspired or mentored by McLaurin. Swayzene Harris, the retired Director of Personnel of the Alexandria City Schools in Alexandria, Virginia shared that McLaurin was in many ways responsible for her professional career. “She gave me my first experience in teaching, and literally taught me how to teach. She insisted that I develop outstanding skills, skills that powered my career development both as a teacher and a supervisor. She was such a strong mentor and I am grateful for remaining in touch all these years.”
Robert Cannon, a long-time educator and retired Director of Elementary Employment at CMS, was a student in McLaurin’s 4th grade class almost 70 years ago. He remembers her as a kind and devoted teacher who both cared for her kids and set high expectations. “Her mantra was always ‘The Children Come First,’ and that philosophy informed her decision-making throughout her career. She challenged me by making me a Summer School administrator early in my career, an experience that showed me what I was made of and that I was capable of leadership. As a result – and with a nudge from McLaurin – I went back to school, pursued advanced degrees and became an administrator. I will always be grateful to her for taking me under her wing.” For her part, McLaurin saw the coaching, nurturing and mentoring of education professionals as a part of her calling. “I am thankful for education and the ability to offer opportunities for others,” she said. “I am grateful for those who nurtured me and for the opportunity to nurture others.”
Traveling, playing bridge, and spending time with family and dear friends are a few of McLaurin’s favorite things. She traveled to seven countries and 47 states. She has sat with Governors, Senators, Congressmen, Mayors, Superintendents and business leaders on every level of society, always advocating for improvements to America’s early childhood development infrastructure and justice for everyone. She even used her personal resources on many occasions to start organizations and fund their early stages of development. Her influence over her 90 years was global! Not a bad feat for a young lady from Kannapolis, North Carolina.
The only daughter of the late John Baxter McConnaughey and Myrtle Lee McCombs McConnaughey, McLaurin was a member of the Marable Memorial AME Zion Church as a child. In 1953 she married her college sweetheart, Daniel McLaurin, Jr. They were joyfully married for 56 years until his transition in 2010. They are the proud parents of Danette McLaurin Glass, her mother’s partner-in-progress and an accomplished community advocate in her own right. She cherished her “son-in-love,” Joel, her grandchildren, Christopher Glass, Nicholas Glass, Ashleigh Glass and Dr. Renee McLaurin Starr; great grandchildren Cameron Glass, Jaton and Aneya Barrino; and godchildren, Gloria Miller, Dr. Karen Woods. Dr. Gwendolyn Felder Brown and Bettye Curbeam Green. She will be laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery beside her husband. McLaurin was a larger than life presence who made an eternal mark on her loved ones, her peers and her community. Her legacy will live on in the lives of those she mentored and the work of the organizations she championed.