Mary McLeod Bethune
July 10, 1875 – May 18, 1955
Notable: Educator and Activist
Ten years after the end of the American Civil War, Mary McLeod Bethune was born on a farm near Maysville, South Carolina. The child of former slaves, Samuel and Patsy McLeod, she was the 15th of her parents’ 17 children but the first to be born free. Her family was still poor despite everyone, including the young children, working in the fields picking cotton. The land which the family farmed had been acquired as a result of her mother saving the money she earned by continuing to work for her former owner after emancipation.
During slavery, there was a concentrated effort to keep most enslaved people uneducated. But following the end of the Civil War, many schools were established in the South to educate the newly freed and their children. When a missionary school was established in the vicinity of the family farm, McLeod’s parents allowed her to attend. Getting to class required walking several miles each day and thus McLeod would be the only person in her family to attend school but shared what she learned with the rest of her family.
McLeod received a scholarship to attend Scotia Seminary (now Barber-Scotia College), an all-girls boarding school in Concord, North Carolina. Following her graduation in 1893, McLeod enrolled and studied for two years at Dwight Moody’s Institute for Home and Foreign Missions (also known as Moody Bible Institute) in Chicago, Illinois. The program was intended to prepare McLeod for work as a missionary but when no churches were willing to sponsor her, she returned to the South and became an educator.
At the age of 23, McLeod married a fellow teacher, Albertus Bethune, and the couple welcomed a son a year later. Thus far Bethune had worked at the Haines Institute in Augusta, Georgia and at the Kendall Institute in Sumpter, South Carolina. Bethune and her young family relocated to Palatka, Florida where she worked for a while as an insurance salesperson and for the Presbyterian Church. It was during her time in Palatka that Bethune founded her first school.
When her marriage ended a few years later, Bethune moved to Daytona Beach. With dreams of starting a new school and needing to support her son, Bethune established the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls. The school began with just six students, one of whom was Bethune’s son, and eventually evolved into a high school.
Sources vary but in either 1923 or 1929, the school merged with the all-male Cookman Institute. In 1931, the Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools accredited the school and it officially became Bethune-Cookman College. Bethune continued in her role as president at the new institution, which made her the first Black female president of any college. The school became one of the few in the South to allow Black students to study towards and obtain an educational certificate beyond a high school diploma.
There is a story of Bethune and the school’s faculty standing watch while the Ku Klux Klan marched through campus in an attempt to counteract Bethune’s successful local Black voter drives. As if growing and managing a college wasn’t enough, Bethune also opened McLeod Hospital, the first in the area to treat Black patients. Student nurses received training at the hospital and saved many lives during the 1918 influenza pandemic.
Mary McLeod Bethune was also an active member of and leader in several organizations. Most notably she became president of the National Association of Colored Women’s (NACW) Florida chapter and contributed to local initiatives focused on racial equality, gender equality, and healthcare. She rose to national prominence when she was elected to the role of the organization’s national president from which she led its 10,000 members. Working with the NACW inspired her to create the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) which eventually grew to 850,000 members.
Presiding over a college as well as leading a national political organization allowed McLeod to develop relationships outside of Florida, particularly in Washington, D.C. Bethune advised and served on commissions during the Coolidge, Hoover, and Truman administrations. But her greatest contributions occurred during the time she served as a minority affairs advisor to President Roosevelt. She was tapped to help organize the Federal Council on Negro Affairs and later led the Office of Minority Affairs in the National Youth Administration. Her achievements included successfully lobbying to have Black women included in the Women’s Army Corps and attending the conference at which the United Nations was founded.
After several years of public service representing the interests of Black America in Washington, D.C., Bethune returned to Florida where she retired. A close friend of Dr. Carter G. Woodson, Bethune recognized the importance of recording Black history and made a concentrated effort to preserve records of Black women’s achievements and contributions. A life-long believer that education would be vitally important to the progress and upliftment of Black people, Bethune wrote “My Last Will and Testament” in which she shared her philosophy on life and hopes for the future of her people.
Mary McLeod Bethune died of a heart attack on May 18, 1955. Her contributions have been recognized by a postage stamp, a bronze statue in Washington’s Lincoln Park, and her planned inclusion in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall. The U.S. Park Service acquired the former NCNW D.C. headquarters and transformed it into the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site. The Mary McLeod Bethune Council House is home to Bethune’s collection now known as the National Archives for Black Women’s History. It is believed to be the only archive solely dedicated to preserving the history of Black women.
- Biography.com Editors. 2020. “Mary McLeod Bethune.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television. January 15, 2020. https://www.biography.com/activist/mary-mcleod-bethune.
- Jones, Martha S. 2020. “Mary McLeod Bethune Was at the Vanguard of More Than 50 Years of Black Progress.” Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian Institution. July 1, 2020. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/mary-mcleod-bethune-vanguard-more-than-50-years-black-progress-180975202/?page=4.
- “Mary McLeod Bethune.” 2020. National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior. July 17, 2020. https://www.nps.gov/mamc/learn/historyculture/mary-mcleod-bethune.htm.
- Michals, Debra, ed. 2015. “Mary McLeod Bethune.” National Women’s History Museum. National Women’s History Museum. 2015. https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/mary-mcleod-bethune.
- “Our Founder – Dr. Bethune.” n.d. Bethune-Cookman University. Accessed July 27, 2020. https://www.cookman.edu/about_BCU/history/our_founder.html.
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