Mona Martin MacDonald doesn’t believe in hesitation. She believes every challenge is an opportunity – and that there’s no sense in turning down opportunity. That mentality has led her through a remarkable journey that includes earning a doctorate in a time when few African American women did so, becoming the first academic dean of color in Connecticut, and launching a vibrant community arts society.
Mona was born in Lincoln County, Mississippi to a family with a very special history. Her grandfather had owned about 250 acres in Mississippi since the mid-1800s – a feat almost unheard of for African American people in those days – and he’d deeded about 50 of those acres over to Mona’s father, which she and her brother, Charles Garner, of Fayetteville, still own.
“We never did find out how he was able to own so much land,” Mona says. “All people ever said was that he was the hardest working man you’d ever meet. But before my daughter moved to London many years ago, the two of us went to the courthouse and looked up the property records, because I felt it was important for her to know her history and where she came from. We discovered something that was, to me, almost more valuable than the land. Most African American men signed their deeds with an X. My grandfather wrote his name. He was literate. In the mid-1800s, he was a literate Black man who owned a tremendous amount of property. That’s just incredible to me.”
Mona attended public schools through grade school and middle school. For two years of high school, she attended a private boarding school, and in her senior year, the family moved to Michigan as her parents felt there were more opportunities for African Americans there. After graduation, she hoped to attend college to study the arts.
“My mother was having none of that,” she says with a laugh. “’Oh no!’ she said ‘We can’t spend money on that. You’ll never get a job. You’ll starve!’ She told me to choose nursing, teaching, or secretarial work, because those were three jobs we knew were open to African American women. My aunt had been a secretary and liked it, so I went to business college.”
Like many college kids, Mona decided to get a summer job after freshman year. Pouring through the classifieds, she found a job that seemed interesting. The advertiser was looking for a mother’s helper who would do a little domestic work, but mostly help with the children – and would accompany the family on beach trips. They wanted someone bright and friendly. The job sounded fun and right up Mona’s alley… until she got to the last line.
“I will never forget that advertisement,” she says. “I was so excited until I read ‘must be very light skinned.’ People sometimes don’t believe they’d print that in the paper, but they did and I realized I needed to go somewhere else if I really wanted to succeed.”
The question was where to go. As she began considering her options, she thought of an aunt in Buffalo New York and another in New Orleans. It was the latter that really got her mind firing.
“My Aunt Daisy married a man who’d been a butler in a very wealthy family and had come into money from his employer,” she explains. “This allowed them to travel all over and they always said that New York City was the best place for African Americans because we were treated with respect and had opportunities.”
New York seemed a little bigger than Mona wanted, but she had a friend in Connecticut who said she could get Mona an interview at Travelers Insurance. Mona made the trip and got the job.
“Remember that secretarial work was very respected and paid pretty well back then,” she says. “I could take dictation and type, and those were skills people really appreciated.”
For the next few years, Mona worked happily at Travelers. Then she met and married her first husband, and her son and daughter were born.
“I wanted to be the one taking care of my children as much as possible,” she says, “but I wanted to work. My insurance job, however, didn’t give me the flexibility to be with the kids.”
So, Mona went back to school, this time at the University of Hartford, and earned her four-year teaching degree. She then taught in the public school system, cycling through first, second, third, and eighth grades over the course of her tenure.
“I loved teaching,” she says, “and it allowed me to work full time, have good benefits, and still be with my kids most of the time they were home from school.”
Eventually, she decided to go back and earn a master’s in education. During the admissions process, the dean told her she should consider a doctorate, but she didn’t really take him seriously. She did, however, start her master’s program at U of Hartford and began teaching social studies at the university. One day, the dean came to her and said he had a full-time position he thought Mona would be perfect to fill. The university had launched a new program to help current teachers who hadn’t earned a bachelor’s but would need to under new federal standards. Mona, thought the dean, would be a terrific assistant director.
“I was so surprised,” she says. “This was a vital role and the program had a $9 million budget, which was much more then than it is now. I thought he must be seeing something in me that I wasn’t, but I remembered my folks telling us to always look forward, never look back. So I interviewed and I got the job.”
Once again, Mona was happy in her role. But then one day, the program director came into her office and said “Mona, you really should think about getting a doctorate.” This time, Mona paid attention. She began looking at programs and soon began leaning toward the University of Massachusetts. She really liked the program director there and it seemed like the right place for her to be. Then, suddenly, the university declared a moratorium on new doctoral students. Mona was crushed, but determined. She turned her attention to schools in New York and had just about settled on a new option when she got a call. The UMass college of education had been granted the opportunity to admit just 10 students to the program – and they wanted Mona to be one of them.
“Again, I was just so surprised,” she says. “Me? They wanted me?”
They did. So, Mona pulled together all the necessary paperwork in just two weeks and started planning. She’d discovered the program director she adored was leaving in four years. Completing the program usually took six, but Mona made a plan and figured out how to do it in four. In the middle of everything, her marriage, which had been deteriorating, ended. Suddenly, Mona found herself with full custody of two children still in school – while pursuing a doctorate and working. To make things more manageable, she left her full-time position at University of Hartford and took an adjunct teaching position at Manchester Community College. Still, it was a lot.
“I lived in Connecticut and didn’t want to move my children’s schools,” she says, “so I drove into UMass three nights a week for classes and almost every Saturday and Sunday to do research and study. There was no internet, remember. I had to do everything the old-fashioned way.”
Mona was, as always, determined to make it work, but the pressure was sometimes a little overwhelming.
“I loved my studies,” she says. “I loved teaching college and I loved spending time with my family and my church. But I’ll be honest. There were nights I’d cry all the way home from Massachusetts. My mother had recently passed and we were very close, so that was hard too. She and I loved the song ‘On My Own’ from Les Mis and sometimes I’d sing it the entire drive. Just drive and cry and sing. It got me through.”
Before long, yet another opportunity came Mona’s way. While teaching a business English class at Manchester one day, the dean of education caught her attention and asked her to come by his office later. Mona feared the worst. Had she done something wrong? Had someone complained about her? She was one of only two, African American instructors in the Business College, after all, and there were still very few African American women teaching college at the time. Her entire class was white and some students, faculty, and staff had made it clear they weren’t sure about her – or outright objected.
“I worried all day that I was going to lose my job,” she says. “I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
In fact, though, the dean wanted her to join the college full-time – as the director of the college’s learning center. In this role, she’d still teach one class, but would also work with students, especially international students, to help them adjust to campus life and succeed academically. Having a full-time job certainly strained her time even further, but she loved it. One of the key revelations, for her, came when she went to Wellesley for the HERS program for women in higher education management.
“There weren’t a lot of women in higher education then,” she explains, “and the HERS program was really intended to help us navigate this very male-dominated industry. One of the things that really stuck out to me was their advice to find a mentor. It’s something, they explained, that men tend to do but women, at the time, did not. So I started looking for a mentor and realized there were no women of color to mentor me. I decided then that I could be that person for others in the future.”
Eventually, Mona was promoted to assistant dean of academic affairs. She was still finishing her doctorate in education and, after hearing horror stories from a colleague, had decided not to tell anyone on campus except the president that she was pursuing a doctorate. The president, thankfully, was in her corner, and encouraged her to persist. She distinctly recalls going in to work after she’d finished at last.
“I got out of my car and the dean of business happened to be walking in at the same time,” she recalls. “He said to me ‘how are you today, Ms. Martin?’ and I smiled and said ‘Actually, it is Doctor Martin now. He was so surprised!”
As it happened, the dean of academic affairs had just left. And Mona then became the first person of color to hold an academic dean’s position in a public college in Connecticut.
“I was very proud of that accomplishment,” she says. “And I was proud that I could serve as a mentor to young people, to show them that it could be done.”
Among her mentees were Nelson Mandela’s daughter Makaziwe (Maki) and her husband, Isaac Amuah.
“Isaac actually tried to set me up with a man once,” she laughs. “That didn’t work. But Maki and Isaac did send me a complete African traditional outfit that I finally found a place to wear just last year.”
Shortly after Mona moved into the dean’s role, she met Charles MacDonald, a bonny Scotsman who was wildly different from Mona, but was clearly her match nonetheless.
“Do you know where he took me on our first date?” she laughs. “Cherry-picking on the Hudson! Here I was going to operas and plays and restaurants and he took me cherry-picking. It was perfect.”
Eventually, the couple married and started thinking about the rest of their lives.
“Charles had a home in Birmingham and we’d visited there,” she says. “But also, my son had gone to Morehouse and, after about a month, he told me that he’d never move back to Connecticut. ‘The people are so warm and friendly here!’ he told me. ‘They say good morning and ask me how I am. It’s wonderful.’ Well, that was something new to me but it sounded interesting.”
A year into her tenure as dean, Mona became eligible for a one-year sabbatical. She and Charles decided to spend it in Fayetteville and see what they thought. That was 1997. They never left.
“We just loved it here,” Mona says. “And we decided it was the perfect place for us to pursue the next part of our lives.”
Charles, a semi-retired construction company owner, spent time rehabbing and developing real estate – and collecting exotic antique cars. Mona returned to her first love, the arts, and opened an art gallery, Azuli Arts, on Main Street in Fayetteville.
“There wasn’t a focused arts community in Fayette then,” she says. “There were art lovers, but they were scattered. When I opened the gallery, though, they began coming in and I got to know so many people.”
One of those was Archie Hale.
“The thing about Mona,” he says. “Is that she’s never met a stranger. Once you’ve met her, you’re friends. She’s also just a tremendous community ambassador and a wonderful person. She intentionally brings sunshine into cloudy days.”
Archie points out how relentless Mona has been in bringing positive things to the community. One of those was the art gallery. Another is The Colorful Arts Society, which she founded with a few like-minded friends in 1999.
“Mother always said ‘if you can’t find what you need or want, make it,’” she explains. “So I did.”
Colorful Arts held its first meeting at the train depot in February of 2000 with a handful of local members. Today, the society has members all over the state – and even one in Detroit. They hold meetings, organize outings and events, and provide student scholarships. They also partner with museums, theatre companies, and other groups to host events. Mona served as president for the first seven years and is thrilled about the society’s upcoming twentieth anniversary celebration.
And yet, somehow, all of these things are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Mona. She attended the Queen of England’s annual garden party – after three months of vetting (at the time, her daughter, Zena, was on the board of the Royal Society of Arts, of which The Queen was The Patron). She served for years as a deacon at her Connecticut church and was the first woman of color – and one of very few people of color – to do so. She also convinced a board comprised of male deacons to hire the church’s first female pastor.
These days, she spends lots of time at her holiday home in St. Simons, where Zena moved upon returning from London. There, she’s active in the St. Simon Island Literary Guild, St. Simons African Heritage Coalition, and the Coastal Symphony of GA. When here in Fayetteville, she loves attending arts events and co-hosting some book club meetings. And she’s very active at Cornerstone Baptist Church in Fayetteville, where she serves communion the first Sunday of every month.
“I give God all the credit for everything I’ve been able to achieve,” she says. “I’m very honored to serve my church and to serve Him.”
Sadly, Charles passed away just before last Christmas. But Mona’s son, Arnold Martin, III, is a mortgage banker and on the zoning commission in Fayetteville. His wife, Gina, is a librarian here and Mona also has two granddaughters, Jillian and Sage, who are off at college.
“Growing up,” Arnold says, “ours was the house everyone gathered at. Our friends were always there because wherever my mother is, it becomes a safe and welcoming space.”
Mona’s long-time friend Audrey Toney agrees.
“’Friend’ can’t even begin to describe her,” says Audrey. “She’s so much more than that. She’s loving, caring, empathetic, wise. No matter what’s happening in her life, she’ll stop to make sure others are cared for. I just love her so.”
“She’s incredibly inspiring and incredibly driven,” Arnold adds. “Did she tell you that, when she was pursuing her doctorate, she was in a terrible accident? She broke her leg and was on crutches and in a neck brace but she never missed a class. She always taught us that, if you’re going to do something, you need to be present. And to always try to make a difference.”
For her part, Mona feels she’s been incredibly blessed.
“Throughout my life, God has always sent me an angel when I’ve needed one. Always,” she says. “He will do that, you know. It’s in his Word. If you ask, you will receive help. It just may not look like what you expect, so you have to stay open. Stay open, stay positive, do for other people and don’t be afraid to take chances. If you help others, there will always be an angel to help you.”
Her life advice: Live your life with gusto. Never look back. Whatever happens to you, assume it’s happening because there’s an opportunity you would not have otherwise. Just charge forward.