Mary McLeod Bethune, the fifteenth of seventeenth children, was born in Mayesville, South Carolina, on 10th July, 1875. Both of her parents were former slaves who had been emancipated after the Civil War. Mary received no schooling until the Trinity Presbyterian Mission School opened in 1885.
Inspired by the teaching of Emma Jane Wilson, Mary decided that she wanted a career in education. After graduating from Scotia Seminary, she spent six years teaching in North Carolina. Mary trained to become an African missionary at the Bible Institute for Home and Foreign Missions in Chicago. However, she was rejected by the Presbyterian Mission Board because it did not accept African Americans for this work.
Bethune returned to teaching and found work at the Haines Institute in Augusta, Georgia. This was followed by a spell at the Kendall Institute in Sumner, South Carolina, where she met and married Albert Bethune. The couple moved to Palatka, Florida and while her husband worked as a porter, Mary opened her own school.
In 1904 Bethune established the Daytona Educational and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls. The school was a great success and by 1922 it had 300 students and 25 staff. The following year it was merged with the Cookman Institute for Men and from 1929 became known as the Bethune-Cookman College.
Bethune played an active role in the civil rights movement. A member of the NAACP, Bethune defied Jim Crow customs and all seating in her schools were desegregated. Although threatened by the Ku Klux Klan, Bethune and her staff always voted in elections.
Bethune was also president of the National Association of Colored Women (1924 to 1928) and in 1935 established the National Council of Negro Women. In these posts Bethune campaigned against lynching and discrimination in employment.
In 1936 President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Bethune as administrative assistant for Negro Affairs. She was also elected president of the NAACP in 1940 and during the Second World War she campaigned for desegregation in the armed forces. Mary McLeod Bethune died on 18th May, 1955, at Daytona Beach, Florida.
Mary McLeod Bethune
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Mary McLeod Bethune, (born July 10, 1875, Mayesville, South Carolina, U.S.—died May 18, 1955, Daytona Beach, Florida), American educator who was active nationally in African American affairs and was a special adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt on the problems of minority groups.
Mary McLeod was the daughter of former slaves. She graduated from Scotia Seminary (now Barber-Scotia College) in Concord, North Carolina, in 1893 and from the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago in 1895. She married Albertus L. Bethune in 1898, and until 1903 she taught in a succession of small Southern schools.
In 1904 Bethune moved to the east coast of Florida, where a large African American population had grown up at the time of the construction of the Florida East Coast Railway, and in Daytona Beach, in October, she opened a school of her own, the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls. Having virtually no tangible assets with which to start, she worked tirelessly to build a schoolhouse, solicit help and contributions, and enlist the goodwill of both the African American and white communities. In 1923 the school was merged with the Cookman Institute for Men, then in Jacksonville, Florida, to form what was known from 1929 as Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach. Bethune remained president of the college until 1942 and again from 1946 to 1947. Under her administration the college won full accreditation and grew to an enrollment of more than 1,000.
Mary Jane McLeod was born on July 10, 1875, in rural Mayesville, South Carolina. Unlike her parents, Samuel and Patsy McLeod, Mary, who was the 15th of 17 children, was born free.
For many years after the end of the system of enslavement, Mary's family continued to work as sharecroppers on the plantation of former enslaver William McLeod until they could afford to build a farm. Eventually, the family had enough money to erect a log cabin on a small plot of farmland they called Homestead.
Despite their freedom, Patsy still did laundry for her former enslaver and Mary often accompanied her mother to deliver the wash. Mary loved going because she was allowed to play with the toys of the enslaver's grandchildren. On one particular visit, Mary picked up a book—only to have it ripped from her hands by a White child, who screamed that Mary wasn't supposed to read. Later in life, Mary said that this experience had inspired her to learn to read and write.
The Extraordinary Life of Mary McLeod Bethune
Mary McLeod Bethune was a passionate educator and presidential advisor. In her long career of public service, she became one of the earliest black female activists that helped lay the foundation to the modern civil rights movement.
Top image: Bethune and the Capital. Photo courtesy of Daytona Times.
In his 1956 autobiography, titled I Wonder as I Wander, Langston Hughes vividly recalled being invited by Mary Bethune to give a reading at Bethune-Cookman College in 1929. After the event, Bethune hitched a ride with the young poet back to New York City. In the time of Jim Crow, where Black travelers were required to carry an Automobile Blue Book that listed the way stops in which African Americans were allowed to stop for meals, restrooms, or for sleeping accommodations, Hughes noted that Bethune avoided much of the indignity of segregated facilities along the long road to New York. He said, “Colored people along the eastern seaboard spread a feast and opened their homes wherever Mrs. Bethune passed their way.” In fact, he continued, “chickens, sensing that she was coming, went flying off frantically seeking a hiding place. They knew a heaping platter of southern fried chicken would be made in her honor.”
Such popularity followed Bethune through much of her 60 years of public service. During that time, she wore many hats including educator, community organizer, public policy advisor, public health advocate, advisor to the President of the United States, patriot, and of course mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. All in the service of her relentless pursuit of what she called “unalienable rights of the citizenship for Black Americans.”
Drawing of Samuel and Patsy McLeod. Parents of Mary McLeod. Image from State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.
Mary McLeod Bethune was born in 1875, number 15 of 17 children of former slaves, during the genesis of Jim Crow and the anti-Black violence that would ultimately plague the South for the duration of her life. By the time of her birth, Patsy and Samuel McLeod owned a small farm near Mayesville, South Carolina. Deeply religious, they encouraged their curious daughter to attend a mission school where she thrived. The young Mary McLeod became so enthralled with learning that she won a scholarship to continue her studies at Scotia Seminary for Negro Girls in Concord, North Carolina, and spent one year at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois. It was during her time at Scotia and Moody that she developed her philosophy of “female uplift” and her passion for educating girls for leadership in their communities.
Mary McLeod Bethune with students at the Daytona Educational and Industrial School for Negro Grils. c. 1905. Image from State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.
In 1898, Mary McLeod married Albertus Bethune and had one son, Albert, in 1899. Her marriage to Albertus was a tumultuous nine years. The family moved from Savannah, Georgia to Palatka, Florida, where she worked in a small mission school. In 1904, the family moved again to Daytona, Florida, where she founded the Daytona Educational and Industrial School for Negro Girls. A few short years later in 1907, her marriage ended when Albertus abandoned the family and returned to South Carolina. Although they never divorced, Bethune listed herself as a widow in the 1910 census. However, her estranged husband did not die until 1918.
Mary McLeod Bethune, Daytona Beach, 1915. Image from State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.
In 1923, Bethune successfully negotiated the merger of her school in Daytona with the Cookman Institute in Jacksonville, Florida. Together, they created the coeducational four year Bethune-Cookman College. By the time of the merger, she was already a highly respected leader in Black education and among Black women’s clubs. In addition to her school, Bethune worked with the Florida Federation of Colored Women’s clubs to found a home for delinquent Black girls in Ocala, Florida. She served as president of the Southeastern Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs (1920-25), the National Association of Teachers in Colored Schools (1923-24), and she also served as president of the National Association of Colored Women (1924-1928.) Her work on local, regional, and national boards elevated her status as a leader of the Black community. By 1935, she founded the National Council of Negro Women all while continuing to serve as President of Bethune-Cookman College.
Her work with the college, national organizations, and her involvement in political advocacy led to an invitation from President Herbert Hoover to attend a White House conference in 1930. Bethune capitalized on the invitation and left the conference a leading advocate and voice for African Americans in the United States.
Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary McLeod Bethune in 1937. Image from State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.
During the depths of the Great Depression and the hope of the New Deal, Bethune changed her political party from Republican to Democrat, and whole-heartedly committed herself to the betterment of life for African Americans. In 1931, Bethune was listed tenth on a list of the most outstanding living American women. She used her platform to push an agenda for racial and gender inclusion and championed conventional family life for racial uplift.
Bethune was introduced to the Roosevelts in 1927 and later supported their run for the Presidency. The close friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt was instrumental in gaining regular access to the President. In 1936, President Roosevelt tasked her to join the National Youth Administration and by 1939 she became the Director of Negro Affairs. As Director, Bethune was the highest paid African American in government at the time—with a $5,000 salary. Under her guidance as Director, NYA employed hundreds of thousands of young African American men and women and established a “Negro College and Graduate Fund” that supported over 4,000 students in higher education.
Mary McLeod Bethune, Director of NYA Negro Affairs, 1943. Image from Library of Congress, 2017843211.
Her work with the Roosevelt administration continued when she established and led the informal “Black Cabinet.” The term was coined by Bethune in 1936 and frequently used to describe President Roosevelt’s advisors on issues facing Black communities around the country. The Black Cabinet worked on lynching legislation, attempts to ban poll taxes in the South, welfare, and they worked with New Deal agencies to create jobs for unemployed African Americans. The cabinet also helped draft the presidential executive orders that ended exclusion of African Americans in armed forces and defense industries during World War II. The influence of the Black Cabinet grew from the unprecedented access of Mary McLeod Bethune to the President and the first lady. The work of the cabinet ultimately laid the political foundation of what would become the modern civil rights movement.
Launching the liberty ship: SS Booker T. Washington, 1942. Image from Library of Congress, 2017695234.
During World War II, she was active in mobilizing support for the war effort among African Americans. She publicly argued for equal opportunity in defense-industry manufacturing and in the armed forces. In a 1941 speech, she eloquently embodied the sentiment of equality:
“Despite the attitude of some employers in refusing to hire Negros to perform needed, skilled services, and despite the denial of the same opportunities and courtesies to our youth in the armed forces of our country, we must not fail America and as Americans, we must not let America fail us.”
She led war bond drives, blood donation drives, and encouraged African American women to staff the canteens that dotted the country. Bethune also served as a special assistant to the Secretary of War for the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. In the role as Special Assistant, she was responsible for helping establish a training school and recruiting Black women for army officer training.
Mary McLeod Bethune in WAND uniform, 1944. Image from Tuskegee University Archives.
Bethune was named honorary General of the Women’s Army for National Defense. After the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps was converted to active duty status in July 1943, she also served as an advisor for the new Women’s Army Corps. As an advisor to the WAC and WAND, she successfully lobbied President Roosevelt to end segregation in veteran rehabilitation centers and frequently briefed the President on instances of violence against Black service members in the South.
Bethune remained a close advisor to the President until his death. She attended his second, third, and fourth inaugurations, and was delivering a speech in Dallas, Texas, when the news of Roosevelt’s death was announced on April 12, 1945. She immediately flew back to Washington and participated in a nation-wide radio broadcast celebrating President Roosevelt.
Mary McLeod Bethune in 1949. Image from Library of Congress, 2004662601.
After the war, Bethune served as an associate consultant to the US delegation to help draft the United Nations charter. During the negotiations, she focused her efforts on the rights of people living in colonized countries around the world. She left the conference with a deep sense of disappointment, as she did not get the concessions of freedom, human rights, and self-determination that she so deeply desired.
In 1949, she was invited to Haiti to receive the highest Hattian civilian honor, the “Medal of Honor and Merit.” She also traveled to Liberia, as a representative of President Truman, where she received the “Commander of the Order of the Star of Africa,” Liberia’s highest medal. Over the course of her life, she received 11 honorary degrees from Black and white colleges—including Rollins College, where she was the first African American to receive such an honor in the entire South.
Her legacy continued after her death in May 1955. She was the first Black woman to have a national monument dedicated to her in the nation’s capital. Schools, public parks, and streets have been named in her honor. Her greatest legacy remains Bethune-Cookman University, one of the top 50 historically Black colleges and universities in the country.
Historian Audrey Thomas McCluskey summed it up best when she wrote: “Despite the numerous instances of racism shown toward her, and even unsubstantiated charges that she was a Communist sympathizer, Bethune maintained her belief in America.” She possessed unwavering patriotism, a strong sense of racial pride, and even walked with a cane that had once belonged to her friend, President Franklin Roosevelt. McCluskey continued, “She lived almost 80 years, a lifetime that reached from the post-Reconstruction era to the dawn of the modern civil rights movement.”
In her last will and testament from 1955, Dr. Bethune wrote:
“I leave you hope. The Negro’s growth will be great in the years to come. Yesterday our ancestors endured the degradation of slavery, yet they retained their dignity. Today, we direct our strength toward winning a more abundant and secure life. Tomorrow, a new Negro, unhindered by race taboos and shackles, will benefit from more than 330 years of ceaseless struggle. Theirs will be a better world. This I believe with all my heart.”
Sources and Recommended Reading:
McCluskey, Audrey Thomas and Elaine M. Smith. Mary McLeod Bethune: Building a Better World. Indiana University Press, 1999.
Long, Nancy Ann Zrinyi. Mary McLeod Bethune: Her Life and Legacy. Florida Historical Society Press, 2019.
Robertson, Dr. Ashley N. Mary McLeod Bethune in Florida: Bringing Social Justice to the Sunshine State. The History Press, 2015.
Siren of the Resistance: The Artistry and Espionage of Josephine Baker
Iconic entertainer of the Jazz Age, famous for her risqué performances, Josephine Baker responded to the start of World War II by becoming a spy for the French Resistance. Known as the “Creole Goddess” of France, Baker used her celebrity to gain access to high-ranking Axis officials.
Adam Foreman is the Student Programs Specialist at The National WWII Museum.
Mary Bethune's Pie Recipe
Get this recipe and others on our Pinterest page.
The icon passed away in 1955, leaving a last will and testament full of wisdom and love.
"I leave you love. 'Love thy neighbor' is a precept which could transform the world if it were universally practiced."
"I leave you the challenge of developing confidence in one another."
"I leave you a thirst for education."
"I leave you respect for the use of power."
"I leave you racial dignity."
"I leave you a desire to live harmoniously with your fellow man."
"I leave you finally a responsibility to our young people."
"If I have a legacy to leave my people, it is my philosophy of living and serving. I think I have spent my life well. I pray now that my philosophy may be helpful to those who share my vision of a world of Peace, Progress, Brotherhood, and Love." &ndash Mary McLeod Bethune 1875-1955
Every state has two figures in the Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol in Washington. In 2018, the Florida state legislature voted to replace one of the statues representing Florida with an image of Mary McLeod Bethune.
Read more about Mary McLeod Bethune from United Methodist Women.
Learn more about Women in Leadership in The United Methodist Church.
Find Mary McLeod Bethune's sweet potato pie recipe on Pinterest.
This video was produced by United Methodist Communications in Nashville, TN.
Media contact is Joe Iovino.
Mary McLeod Bethune Was at the Vanguard of More Than 50 Years of Black Progress
The 19th Amendment, ratified in August 1920, paved the way for American women to vote, but the educator and activist Mary McLeod Bethune knew the work had only just begun: The amendment alone would not guarantee political power to black women. Thanks to Bethune’s work that year to register and mobilize black voters in her hometown of Daytona, Florida, new black voters soon outnumbered new white voters in the city. But a reign of terror followed. That fall, the Ku Klux Klan marched on Bethune’s boarding school for black girls two years later, ahead of the 1922 elections, the Klan paid another threatening visit, as over 100 robed figures carrying banners emblazoned with the words “white supremacy” marched on the school in retaliation against Bethune’s continued efforts to get black women to the polls. Informed of the incoming nightriders, Bethune took charge: “Get the students into the dormitory,” she told the teachers, “get them into bed, do not share what is happening right now.” The students safely tucked in, Bethune directed her faculty: “The Ku Klux Klan is marching on our campus, and they intend to burn some buildings.”
The faculty fanned out across the campus Bethune stood in the center of the quadrangle and held her head high as the parade entered the campus by one entrance—and promptly exited by another. The Klansmen were on campus for just a few minutes. Perhaps they knew an armed cadre of local black men had decided to lie in wait nearby, ready to fight back if the Klansmen turned violent. Perhaps they assumed the sight of a procession would be enough to keep black citizens from voting.
If nightriders thought they could frighten Bethune, they were wrong: That week, she showed up at the Daytona polls along with over 100 other black citizens who had come out to vote. That summer, pro-Jim Crow Democratic candidates swept the state, dashing the hopes of black voters who had battled to win a modicum of political influence. Yet Bethune’s unshakable devotion to equality would eventually outlast the mobs that stood in her way.
Bethune bids farewell to students on the day of her retirement as president of Bethune-Cookman College in 1943. (Gordon Parks / Getty Images )
Bethune’s resolve was a legacy of black Americans’ rise to political power during Reconstruction. Bethune was born in 1875 in South Carolina, where the state’s 1868 constitution guaranteed equal rights to black citizens, many of them formerly enslaved people. Black men joined political parties, voted and held public office, from Richard H. Cain, who served in the State Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives, to Jonathan J. Wright, who sat on the state’s Supreme Court. Yet this period of tenuous equality was soon crushed, and by 1895, a white-led regime had used intimidation and violence to retake control of lawmaking in South Carolina, as it had in other Southern states, and a new state constitution kept black citizens from the polls by imposing literacy tests and property qualifications.
Bethune’s political education began at home. Her mother and grandmother had been born enslaved Mary, born a decade after slavery’s abolition, was the 15th of 17 children and was sent to school while some of her siblings continued to work on the family farm. After completing studies at Scotia Seminary and, in 1895, at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Bethune took a teaching post in Augusta, Georgia, and dedicated herself to educating black children in spite of the barriers that Jim Crow set in their way.
In 1898, Mary married Albertus Bethune, a former teacher the following year she gave birth to their son Albert. By 1904, the family had moved to Daytona, Florida, where Bethune founded the Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls originally a boarding school, in 1923 it merged with the nearby Cookman Institute, and in 1941, Bethune-Cookman College was accredited as a four-year liberal arts college. The state’s neglect of public education for black youngsters left a void, and Bethune-Cookman filled it by training students to assume the dual responsibilities of black womanhood and citizenship, as Mary Bethune explained in a 1920 speech: “Negro women have always known struggle. This heritage is just as much to be desired as any other. Our girls should be taught to appreciate it and welcome it.” Bethune had many roles at the school: teacher, administrator, fund-raiser and civil rights advocate.
In 1911, she opened the region’s first hospital for black citizens, McLeod Hospital, named for her parents. Aspiring nurses received hands-on training and provided care to the needy, not least during the 1918 influenza pandemic. Bethune’s close friend and biographer Frances Reynolds Keyser, who served as a dean at her school for 12 years, later wrote: “When the hospital was filled to overflowing, cots were stretched in our large new auditorium and everyone who was on her feet cheerfully enlisted in the service of caring for the sick. The Institution spared neither pains nor money in the discharge of this important duty. and the spread of the disease was checked.” Through such life-saving efforts, Bethune ensured that many white city officials and philanthropists would remain loyal to her for decades to come.
By the 1920s, Bethune had discovered the limits of local politics and began to seek a national platform. In 1924 she assumed the presidency of the largest black women’s political organization in the country, the National Association of Colored Women. By 1935, she was working in Washington, D.C., and the following year played a major role in organizing President Franklin Roosevelt’s Federal Council on Negro Affairs, unofficially known as the “Black Cabinet.”
Bethune, seeing how desperately black Americans needed their share of the benefits of Roosevelt’s New Deal, solidified her influence as a counselor to the president and the only black woman in his inner circle. In 1936, FDR named her head of the new Office of Minority Affairs in the National Youth Administration, making Bethune the most highly placed black woman in the administration. Black Americans had been largely excluded from political appointments since the end of Reconstruction Bethune resurrected this chance for black Americans to hold sway at the national level and ushered a generation of black policymakers into federal service, including Crystal Bird Fauset, who would become the first black woman in the country to be elected to a state legislature when she joined the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in 1938. Bethune was aided by the close friendship she’d forged with first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who saw eye to eye with Bethune on civil rights and women’s issues. The two went out of their way to appear together in public, in a conspicuous rejoinder to Jim Crow.
Bethune and Eleanor Roosevelt in 1940. The close friends were aware of the symbolic value of being seen together. (Afro American Newspapers / Gado / Getty Images)
During World War II, Bethune thought that the struggles of black women in the United States mirrored fights against colonialism being waged elsewhere in the Americas, Asia and Africa. Leading the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), which she’d founded in 1935, Bethune worked to ensure that the Women’s Army Corps included black women. In 1945, delegates from 50 Allied nations met to draft the United Nations Charter at a conference in San Francisco Bethune lobbied Eleanor Roosevelt for a seat at the table—and got one. Working with Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit of India and Eslanda Robeson, an unofficial observer for the Council on African Affairs, Bethune helped solidify the U.N. Charter’s commitment to human rights without regard to race, sex or religion. As she wrote in an open letter, “Through this Conference the Negro becomes closely allied with the darker races of the world, but more importantly he becomes integrated into the structure of the peace and freedom of all people everywhere.”
For half a century, Mary McLeod Bethune led a vanguard of black American women who pointed the nation toward its best ideals. In 1974, the NCNW raised funds to install a bronze likeness of Bethune in Washington, D.C.’s Lincoln Park the sculpture faces Abraham Lincoln, whose figure was installed there a century before. The president who issued the Emancipation Proclamation now stands directly facing a daughter of enslaved people who spent her life promoting black women’s liberation.
Bethune with her pupils in Daytona, Florida, around 1905. (Alamy)
Bethune, Mary McLeod (1875-1955)
“Invest in the human soul,” Mary McLeod Bethune declared. “Who knows, it might be a diamond in the rough.” And invest Bethune did. This incredibly accomplished public servant founded the school that became Bethune-Cookman College as well as a training school for nurses, advised the White House, founded the National Council of Negro Women, worked towards integration of the Red Cross and served four times as a delegate to General Conference.
Bethune was born in South Carolina in 1875 to Sam and Patsy McLeod, both former slaves. She recognized the importance of access to education and devoted a significant portion of her life to educational issues. She founded the Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls in 1904 in Daytona Beach, Florida. In 1923, it merged with the Cookman Institute and became a coeducational college. She also founded the Mary McLeod Hospital and Training School for Nurses in 1911, which at the time was the only school of its kind that served African-American women on the East Coast.
In addition to her considerable educational initiatives, Bethune worked tirelessly for civil rights. During the First and Second World Wars, she advocated for integration of both the American Red Cross and the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. She worked extensively with the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, before founding the National Council of Negro Women in 1935. During the Roosevelt administration, she advised the White House on minority affairs, and after her death she became the first black woman to be honored with a statue in Washington, D.C.
During Bethune’s lifetime, the predecessor denominations of The United Methodist Church included the Central Jurisdiction, which effectively ensured segregation within the church. As Methodist leaders began to work toward unification in the 1930s, Bethune argued vehemently for the elimination of the Central Jurisdiction and a more inclusive denominational structure. She served on the Woman’s Division Committee on Minority Groups and Interracial Cooperation and as a delegate to General Conference four times. She identified proudly as “a Methodist woman in mission” until her death in 1955.
The Story of Mary McLeod Bethune, an Education Trailblazer
On July 10, 1875, Mary Jane McLeod was born in the small town of Mayesville, South Carolina in Sumter County. Until the age of 10, the sum of her understanding was limited to her life experience of being a daughter to former slaves and picking cotton with her family.
Then, one day while working at her landlord’s home, she picked up her first book and her life changed forever. She later wrote of the experience: “the whole world opened to me when I learned how to read.”
Bethune did not let her new skill go to waste…or keep it to herself. She went on to study at two seminaries in North Carolina, became a teacher at an institute in Georgia, then later taught near her birthplace in Sumter, South Carolina.
Bethune had a dream of starting her own school and this dream became reality when she moved to Florida and founded the Daytona Educational and Industrial School for Negro Girls. Years later, that school merged with the local Cookman Institute and the institution is currently known as Bethune-Cookman University with an enrollment of nearly 4,000 and an endowment of $48 million.
Bethune’s life accomplishments touched public policy as well—the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons, the Women’s Army Corps, and the National Council of Negro Women. Her life is a testament to how learning to read allows individuals to not only see a world beyond their current circumstances, but that it inspires individuals to pursue dreams that are greater than themselves. Bethune was a pioneer in education, and a true forerunner who created an institution by black Americans and for black Americans at a time when education was not readily accessible to them.
Fast forwarding to 2021, Mary McLeod Bethune is an inspiration to me in my work at My SC Education. My SC Education was founded to see to it that all South Carolina children—no matter what kind of house they live in or the color of their skin—have access to the education option that helps them reach their full, individual God-given potential.
I say “God-given,” and much of Bethune’s work in education had a connection to the church. In the same vein, My SC Education and Palmetto Promise Institute recently came together to host a stream titled Pastor, Let’s Talk Solutions to specifically talk about how churches can take the lead in school development to help black students struggling in their current educational environment.
During that online meeting, Reverend Doug Slaughter of Second Baptist Church in Aiken, SC (and a school founder himself) made an important point: one of the first things black people did first after coming out of slavery was to establish schools. We have seen this example in other groups such as Roman Catholics and Jews establishing their own institutions for education.
Yet what makes Pastor Slaughter’s example distinct is that this was a group of people not united by religion, but by the shared experience of having come of out slavery and seeking to establish their own footing as free men on free American soil.
Their efforts were supplemented by Julius Rosenwald, one of the owners of Sears Roebuck who established the Rosenwald Fund. Rosenwald impacted South Carolina education for black students as he worked alongside Booker T. Washington in a philanthropic effort that led the formation of about 500 schools built in South Carolina (and as many as 5,000 schools, shops and teachers homes across the South).
These “Rosenwald Schools” operated until the end of segregation in the early 1970s, including a school in South Carolina’s Capital of Columbia called Booker T. Washington High School. (That building has been preserved by the University of South Carolina.)
During February, Black History Month, we salute leaders like Mary McLeod Bethune and other pioneers like her in African-American education. We hope that this short history lesson will inspire you like it does us in our work to ensure that every child realizes the promise and hope of a quality education.
If you would like to learn more about Mary McLeod Bethune and My SC Education’s work, here are some helpful links:
In the Eleanor Roosevelt mystery book series by Elliot Roosevelt the stories depict Eleanor Roosevelt as playing detective and solving murders. Also, though the plots and most of the people are fictitious, the author does use a few real persons. In the books the Roosevelts interact with Hollywood stars, well known contemporary political figures, and many social reformers of the era. Among these is Mrs. Mary McLeod Bethune.
In the stories, as in real life, she was a close friend and advisor to Eleanor Roosevelt and frequent White House visitor. In fact, Mrs. Roosevelt welcomed her advice and her friendship because of her total dedication to not just the cause of education but particularly to her own people. In a society when black Americans had few educational, social or political opportunities, Mrs. Bethune campaigned not just for them but also for all Americans.
Mary Jane McLeod was born in July, 1875, on a rice and cotton farm near Louisville, North Carolina as the youngest of a large family and in fact her parents and many of her older siblings had been born into slavery. When she was old enough she attended a local sponsored by the Presbyterian Board of Missions of Freedman. One particular teacher proved a great influence, and later arranged Mary Jane to attend what is now Scotia Seminary (now Barber-Scotia College) on a scholarship. She studied there from 1888 to 1894 and then attended the Dwight Moody’s Institute for Home and Foreign Missions in Chicago (now Moody Bible Institute) to train for being a missionary to Africa. When informed that black missionaries were not needed in that location, she decided to become a teacher.
She began her career as an educator by teaching at a Presbyterian Mission School near her birthplace in Mayesville, North Carolina in 1896, and then continued teaching at various teachers’ institutes from 1896 to 1898 when she met Albertus Bethune. They were married and at the suggestion of a visiting minister, she relocated to Palatka, Florida to begin a mission school. (Her husband left the family in 1907, and though they did not divorce, he moved away and died some years later).
Then in 1904 she moved to Daytona Beach to establish a school for black children. She chose the city because it was a tourist center and as such offered more economic opportunities than Palatka. The Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls began with five girls and Mrs. Bethune’s son Albert in a small house rented for $11 a month and furnished with benches and tables made out of discarded crates. To raise money for the school, which was located next to the town dump, Mrs. Bethune and the parents and other supporters baked pies and fried fish to sell to nearby construction workers, and solicited local businesses for used furniture donations. “I considered cash money as the smallest part of my resources,” Mrs. Bethune wrote later. “I had faith in a loving God, faith in myself and a desire to serve.”
Local black churches and other supporters donated what they could – money as well as supplies and labor and Mrs. Bethune also sought assistance from local wealthy women’s clubs. To further encourage community support she asked wealthy businessmen to serve on the school board.
The school schedule was rigorous. Students rose at 5:30 a.m. for Bible Study, and then began a class load, that included domestic skills as well as academics. Later the curriculum was expanded to include science and business and high school level classes in English, math and languages were added.
In 1923, the institution became a co-ed high school as a result of a merger with the Cookman Institute of Jacksonville, Florida and after becoming affiliated with the Methodist Church in 1924, it became a junior college in 1931. That same year the school became Bethune-Cookman College and by 1941, it developed into a four-year school offering liberal arts and teacher education. Dr. Bethune retired in 1942 due to health issues, and more recently with its first woman president assuming the office in 2004 it now is Bethune-Cookman University.
Mrs. Bethune traveled widely, seeking funds and support and her friendship with many society, business and political leaders of the time helped her secure grants. Besides her constant support of the college and her active role in education, Mrs. Bethune attained national prominence as an organizer and advocate in many other areas and from that came from her close friendship with President and Mrs. Roosevelt. The First Lady had a great concern for injustice and for the racial inequities of her time, and Mrs. Bethune offered her insight and advice for those concerns. In fact, Mrs. Roosevelt so respected Mrs. Bethune that she arranged to sit next to her friend at an Alabama conference, even though the segregation rules of the time did not permit it.
Mrs. Bethune formed a group of leaders from the black community into the Federal Council on Negro Affairs, which came to be known as the Black Cabinet. Their purpose was to advise the president and his administration on problems encountered by the black community as well as encourage the appointment of blacks to federal agencies. Though they were an informal group with no official status, the “Black Cabinet” served as a respected resource to advocate equal access to government information and resources.
During her time, Mrs. Bethune was an important voice to keep the nation informed about the activities and desires of black Americans. In 1938 she wrote: “If our people are to fight their way up out of bondage we must arm them with the sword and the shield and buckler of pride – belief in themselves and their possibilities, based upon a sure knowledge of the achievements of the past.” She later said: “Not only the Negro child but children of all races should read and know of the achievements, accomplishments and deeds of the Negro. World peace and brotherhood are based on a common understanding of the contributions and cultures of all races and creeds.”
Mrs. Bethune’s personal courage and dedication was unquestioned as she moved through an often segregated society. A dark complexioned woman of less than moderate height, with a matronly figure, she was memorable for her practice of carrying a cane, not because she needed it but for how it affected the viewer – giving her what she called “swank.”
A fellow Black Cabinet member described how she often attained her goals: “She had the most marvelous gift of effecting feminine helplessness in order to attain her aims with masculine ruthlessness.” However, one time when a local white man, disturbed by the school students passed in front of his home, threatened them with a rifle. Mrs. Bethune responded to his protests with courtesy and respect that he eventually turned his hostility into affection for protecting the children. “If anybody bothers old Mary,” he reportedly said, “I will protect her with my life.”
Bethune said her fight for racial equality came from her love of her skin color
Bethune moved back to Florida for her retirement before she died on May 18, 1955. As she approached her final days, Bethune wrote a final passage titled "My Last Will & Testament," where she admitted 𠇏ull equality for the Negro in our time,” the “greatest of her dreams,” would not be realized before her death.
Bethune also explained what she viewed as her legacy for the future generations of Black Americans. Among them, Bethune recounted how her fight for racial equity came from the belief in herself and love of the color of her skin.
“I have never been sensitive about my complexion. My color has never destroyed my self-respect nor has it ever caused me to conduct myself in such a manner as to merit the disrespect of any person,” she wrote. “I have not let my color handicap me. Despite many crushing burdens and handicaps, I have risen from the cotton fields of South Carolina to found a college, administer it during its years of growth, become a public servant in the government of our country and a leader of women. I would not exchange my color for all the wealth in the world, for had I been born white I might not have been able to do all that I have done or yet hope to do.”