Bethune, Mary Mcleod 1875–1955
Mary McLeod Bethune dedicated her life to promoting education and combating the debilitating effects of racism in America. Two of her major accomplishments— the founding of a school for young black girls, which in the early twenty-first century is one of the major historically black colleges and universities, and organizing the Council for Negro Women, now housed in its own building on Pennsylvania Avenue in the nation’s capital—have insured her place as one of the great leaders in black American history.
Born near Mayesville, South Carolina, on July 10, 1875, Mary Jane McLeod was the fifteenth of seventeen children born to Samuel and Patsy McLeod. Her parents were former slaves, and they wanted their children to receive an education. They also desired to be independent, so they worked hard and sacrificed to buy a farm for the family. As a child, Mary Mcleod was eager to learn as much as she could. When the Mission Board of the Presbyterian Church opened a school for blacks four miles from her home, her parents registered her. Mary had to walk the eight miles each day, but she understood at an early age that education was the key to a better life for blacks. Her love of learning may also have had roots in an incident that occurred when she was a child. When the young white children at the home where her mother worked saw her pick up a book, they reproached her and told her books were not for blacks. Indeed, they believed blacks did not have the ability to read. This accusation made Mary even more determined to excel in school.
Mary McLeod did indeed stand out at the mission school, and she was given a scholarship to attend Scotia Seminary in North Carolina. She was then awarded a second scholarship to attend Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, where she also performed exceptionally well and completed the school’s two-year missionary training program. She was told, however, that there were no positions available for black missionaries in Africa. Though deeply disappointed, she returned to Mayesville and taught for one year in the mission school she had once attended. She then taught at Haines Institute in Augusta, Georgia, for one year, after which she went to Kendall Institute in Sumter, South Carolina, where she taught for two years.
CALLED TO FLORIDA
In 1898, while still at Kendall, she married Albertus Bethune. The couple left South Carolina and moved to Savannah, Georgia, where her husband had a new job. Their only son, Albert, was born in Savannah in 1899, the same year she got a teaching job at a mission school in Palatka, Florida. After settling in Florida with her family, Mary taught school and visited local prisons, where she read to the mostly illiterate inmates.
Feeling more could be done to help African-American girls, she resolved to start a school of her own. A minister in Palatka suggested that she considered going to Daytona Beach to found a school for the children of black railway workers, who were extending the Atlantic Coast Line into Florida. Though she knew nothing about Daytona Beach, she decided to give it a try. She arrived there in 1904, virtually penniless, and found a vacant house for her school. She used old boxes and crates for desks and chairs, and the Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School opened for business in October 1904 with five young girls, a budget of one dollar and fifty cents, and a lot of prayers. In addition to teaching the domestic arts, such as cooking and sewing, the girls were taught the “three R’s” (reading, writing, and arthmetic).
Because of her tireless efforts, and the great educational needs among the blacks in Daytona Beach, within Page 167 | Top of Articlethree years Bethune was able to relocate the school to a permanent facility, literally transforming what was a garbage dump into an institution of learning. In 1923 her school became coeducational when it merged with the then all-male Cookman Institute of Jacksonville, Florida. At the time of Bethune’s death in 1955, Bethune-Cook-man College had a faculty of 100 and an enrollment in excess of 1,000 young African-American men and women. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, it served some 3,000 students.
Following the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, which gave women the right to vote, Bethune joined the Equal Suffrage League and taught at a night school, helping blacks learn how to read and write well enough to pass the literacy tests necessary to vote. This activity drew threats from the local Ku Klux Klan, but she stood her ground, and more than one hundred blacks voted in the next election. Her school’s library was, for a time, the only free library open to blacks in the state of Florida.
A NATIONAL FIGURE
As Mary Bethune’s school grew in reputation and influence, she was called on to lend her support to several causes. She was elected to the National Urban League’s executive board in 1920, becoming its first female board member as well as its first black member. In 1935 she founded the National Council of Negro Women, an umbrella group of different black female organizations throughout the nation. She also served as the council’s first president. Because of the scope of her work, presidents of the United States, from Calvin Coolidge to Franklin D. Roosevelt, appointed her to several governmental positions, including Special Advisor on Minority Affairs, director of the Division of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration, and chair of the Federal Council on Negro Affairs. This last organization was known to many as the “Black Cabinet.” Bethune was one of the three black consultants to the United States delegation involved in crafting the United Nations Charter. She was a friend of President Roosevelt’s mother in the 1920s, and she later formed a close friendship with the president’s wife, Eleanor Roosevelt.
Mary McLeod Bethune became a revered figure in America and throughout the world. In 1935 she was the recipient of the NAACP’s highest honor, the Spingarn Award. She died of a heart attack on May 18, 1955. In l974 a statue was erected in her honor in Lincoln Park, in Washington, D.C., making her the first African American to be honored with a statue in a public park. Bethune’s portrait hangs in the State Capitol in Columbia, South Carolina, and a U.S. postage stamp bearing her likeness was issued in 1986.
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Long, Nancy Ann Zrinyi. 2004. The Life and Legacy of Mary McLeod Bethune. Cocoa Beach: Florida Historical Press.
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Reagon, Berinice. 1980. “Bethune, Mary Jane McLeod.” In Dictionary of American Negro Biography, 41–43. New York: Norton.
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Russell Mootry Jr.