Mary McLeod Bethune, an American educator, activist, and champion of civil rights, played a pivotal role in shaping the course of African American history in the United States. As a dedicated advocate for education and social equality, she founded the renowned Bethune-Cookman College. She established the National Council of Negro Women, becoming a prominent figure in the fight against racial and gender discrimination.
Early life and education
Born on 10 July 1875 in Mayesville, South Carolina, Mary Jane McLeod Bethune was the fifteenth of seventeen children to Samuel and Patsy McLeod, former slaves. Despite the challenging circumstances of her upbringing, Bethune’s determination to succeed and tenacity to overcome adversity forged her path as a trailblazer in education and civil rights.
Childhood in South Carolina
Growing up in a post-Civil War South, Bethune experienced the harsh realities of racism and poverty firsthand. Her parents, striving for a better life, worked diligently to purchase the land they once toiled on as slaves. At the age of nine, Bethune began working in the cotton fields alongside her family, contributing to their livelihood by picking up to 250 pounds of cotton per day.
Pursuit of education
Recognising the power of education in breaking the chains of oppression, Bethune seized the opportunity to attend school when a missionary established a local institution for African American children. Despite the long journey to and from school each day, she remained committed to her studies, sharing her newfound knowledge with her family at home.
Bethune’s educational journey continued when she earned a scholarship to attend the Scotia Seminary (now Barber-Scotia College) in Concord, North Carolina. After graduating in 1893, she pursued further studies at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois, graduating in 1895.
A passion for education and activism
Upon completing her education, Bethune embarked on a career in teaching. Over the next decade, she taught at various schools throughout the South and married fellow educator Albertus Bethune in 1898. The couple had one son, Albert McLeod Bethune before their marriage ended in 1907.
Founding the Daytona Beach Literary and Industrial School for Training Negro Girls
Fueled by her belief in the transformative power of education, Bethune founded the Daytona Beach Literary and Industrial School for Training Negro Girls in 1904. Starting with just five students, she worked tirelessly to expand the school, garnering support from both the African American and white communities.
In 1923, the school merged with the Cookman Institute for Men, creating the coeducational Bethune-Cookman College. Bethune served as the college’s president until 1942, overseeing its growth into a fully accredited institution with an enrollment of over 1,000 students.
National Association of Colored Women and the National Council of Negro Women
In addition to her work in education, Bethune was an active participant in national organisations promoting African American rights. She served as president of the Florida chapter of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) for several years and was elected as the organisation’s national president in 1924.
In 1935, Bethune founded the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), an umbrella organisation representing various groups working to address critical issues facing African American women. She served as the NCNW’s founding president until 1949.
Government service and presidential advisor
Bethune’s commitment to social justice and education caught the attention of several US presidents, leading to her involvement in various government initiatives and advisory roles.
Advisory roles under Presidents Coolidge and Hoover
President Calvin Coolidge invited Bethune to participate in a conference on child welfare, while President Herbert Hoover appointed her to the Commission on Home Building and Home Ownership and a committee on child health.
Special Advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt
Bethune’s most significant government service came under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration. In 1935, she was appointed as a special advisor on minority affairs, providing crucial insight into the challenges faced by African Americans during the Great Depression.
In 1936, Bethune was appointed director of the Division of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration, a position she held until 1944. In this capacity, she focused on helping young people secure job opportunities and fought tirelessly to end discrimination and lynching.
Friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt
Bethune developed a close friendship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt throughout her tenure in the Roosevelt administration. Their bond transcended racial and social barriers, further amplifying Bethune’s influence on policies affecting African Americans.
Contributions to the Civil Rights Movement
As a prominent figure in the civil rights movement, Bethune utilised her platform to advance the rights of African Americans and women.
Voter registration drives and political affiliation
Following the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, Bethune led voter registration drives to ensure African American women could exercise their newly granted right to vote. She also played a key role in shifting the allegiance of Black voters from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party during the Great Depression.
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)
In 1940, Bethune was elected vice president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a position she held until her death. She also served on the advisory board responsible for creating the Women’s Army Corps in 1942, ensuring the organisation’s racial integration.
United Nations founding conference
Appointed by President Harry S. Truman, Bethune was the only woman of colour present at the founding conference of the United Nations in 1945. Her participation in this historic event showcased her unwavering commitment to advocating for the rights of marginalised communities.
Businesswoman and writer
In addition to her educational and political achievements, Bethune was an astute businesswoman. She co-owned a Daytona, Florida resort and co-founded the Central Life Insurance Company of Tampa. As a prolific writer, she regularly contributed articles to leading African American newspapers such as the Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago Defender.
Honours and legacy
Mary McLeod Bethune’s life and work have been celebrated and honoured in numerous ways since her passing on 18 May 1955. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1973 and featured on a US postage stamp in 1985. In 1994, the US Park Service purchased the former headquarters of the NCNW, now known as the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site. In 2022, Bethune became the first African American to be represented with a state statue in the National Statuary Hall Collection at the US Capitol.
Mary McLeod Bethune’s extraordinary life is an enduring testament to the power of education and activism in pursuing social justice. Her unwavering commitment to the advancement of African Americans and women has left an indelible mark on American history, inspiring future generations to continue the fight for equality and justice. In her own words, “I leave you a thirst for education. Knowledge is the prime need of the hour.”