Bethune, Mary McLeod 1875–1955

views updated May 09 2018

Mary McLeod Bethune 18751955

Educator, government official, and activist

At a Glance

Her Dream Became Reality

Served as College President

Promoted Dignity as Black Organizer

Played a Role in National Politics

Active Final Years

Selected writings


Mary McLeod Bethune rose from poverty to become one of the nations most distinguished African American leaders and the most prominent black woman of her time. Her life encompassed three different careers: as an educator, she was the central figure in the creation of Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Florida; as founder and president of the National Council of Negro Women, she was a leading force in developing the black womens organization movement; and in the political realm, she was one of the few blacks to hold influential positions in the federal bureaucracy during President Franklin D. Roosevelts administration.

Favoring conciliation over confrontation in her struggle for black equality in an era of segregation, Bethune has been compared to Booker T. Washington. Like him, her leadership style focused on negotiating and cooperating with white leaders to improve the inferior status and economic impoverishment of blacks in American life. By presenting the public image of an affable, non-threatening woman to white audiences, she appealed to their conscience and sense of fair play while clearly expressing her vision of racial equality.

Born in 1875 near Mayesville, South Carolina, Mary McLeod was the fifteenth of 17 children. Her parents were former slaves freed at the time of the Civil War. Though poor by national standards, the McLeod family was a symbol of stability and unity in the local black community. They had worked and saved to buy their own land, building a cabin and growing corn and cotton. Their strong Methodist religious values and work ethics were instilled in Mary at an early age.

Bethunes education began at a free school established near Mayesville by Emma Wilson, a black missionary sent by the Northern Presbyterian Church. After exhausting the educational opportunities at this small school, the young student sought to continue her studies elsewhere. Wilson found a white patron from Denver, Colorado, who financed Bethunes continued education at Scotia Seminary (later Barber-Scotia College), a Presbyterian school for black girls in Concord, North Carolina. Scotia Seminary emphasized religion and industrial (trade school) education. Its racially mixed faculty was Bethunes first intellectual exposure to whites, teaching her that cooperation between the races was possible and that skin color had nothing to do with intelligence.

At a Glance

Born Mary Jane McLeod, July 10, 1875, near Mayesville, SC; died May 18, 1955, in Daytona Beach, FL; daughter of Samuel (a farmer) and Patsy (a domestic worker; maiden name, McIntosh) McLeod; married Albertus Bethune (a teacher and menswear salesman), May, 1898; later separated; children: Albert McLeod Bethune. Education: Graduated from Scotia Seminary (later Barber-Scotia College), Concord, NC, 1893; attended Bible Institute for Home and Foreign Missions (now Moody Bible Institute), Chicago, IL, 1893-95. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Methodist.

Instructor at Haines Normal and Industrial Institute, Augusta, GA, 1895-96; at Kindell Institute, Sumter, SC, 1897-98; and at Palatka Mission School, Palatka, FL, 1899-1903; founder and president of Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute, Daytona Beach, FL (now Bethune-Cookman College), 1904-42, president emeritus, 1942-55. Director of Division of Negro Affairs for National Youth Administration, 1935-43; special adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt on minority affairs, 1936-44; special assistant to Secretary of War for selection of candidates for the Womens Army Corps (WAC), 1945; special representative of the U.S. State Department at San Francisco Conference, 1945, establishing the United Nations.

Member: Florida Federation of Colored Women (president, 1917-24); Southeast Federation of Colored Women (president, 1920-24); National Association of Colored Women (president, 1924-28); National Council of Negro Women (founder and president, 1935-49).

Selected awards: NAACP Spingarn Medal, 1935; Frances Drexel Award for Distinguished Service, 1937; Thomas Jefferson Award, 1942; Robert S. Abbott Memorial Award, 1953; and several honorary degrees.

After graduating from Scotia, Bethune enrolled at the Bible Institute for Home and Foreign Missions (now the Moody Bible Institute) in Chicago, again with a scholarship. She finished her studies in 1895 and thereafter sought missionary service. I wanted to go to Africa and spend my life bringing Christianity to my kinsmen, she told the Literary Digest in 1937. But the Presbyterian Mission Board told her it had no openings in Africa for black missionaries.

Instead the 20-year-old Bethune went to teach at the Haines Normal and Industrial Institute in Augusta, Georgia. The schools dynamic black founder and principal, Lucy Laney, instilled in Bethune a different sense of missionone of bringing educational opportunities to blacks in her own country.

After a year at Haines, she returned to her native South Carolina to teach at the Kindell Institute in Sumter. There she met Albertus Bethune, a former teacher who had become a menswear salesman. After marrying in May of 1898 they moved to Savannah, Georgia, to further his business career. She retired temporarily from teaching, and gave birth to their only child, Albert McLeod Bethune, in 1899. Later that year, with a six-month-old baby, the family moved again, this time to Palatka, Florida, where Mary opened the Palatka Mission School, teaching there for five years. Albertus Bethune did not share his wifes missionary zeal, however, and the couple separated. He died in 1918.

Construction of the Florida East Coast Railway was attracting and employing large numbers of black laborers in northern Florida. Recounting her 1904 arrival in Daytona Beach years later in Readers Digest, Bethune recalled finding ignorance and meager educational facilities, social prejudice and crime. This was the place to plant my seed. Reportedly beginning with only $1.50 in savings, Bethune rented a four-room cottage and opened her school that October with six pupilsfive girls and her son. She raised additional money by tirelessly soliciting funds door-to-door. Most school furnishings came from the city dump; used and discarded items like chairs, desks, rugs, and dishes were collected and repaired by the students.

Her Dream Became Reality

Bethunes powerful personality, unbounded determination, religious faith, and shrewd business skills soon made the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute a phenomenal success. Within two years enrollment had increased to 250 students, mostly girls. Continued growth soon required a larger campus. In 1907 Bethune purchased a field used as a local dump for $250 and began construction of the first building on the schools new campus, Faith Hall. At first, like most black schools of the time, the institute stressed religion and industrial training, the learning of trade skills for future employment. But as time went on the Daytona Institute began to devote more attention to its high school programs and to encouraging ambitious students to attend college.

Bethune saw her school as the center of the local black community, with its primary goal being the promotion of the overall welfare of this constituency. A variety of programs to achieve this mission included a day and night school, a series of local mission schools run by her students in the turpentine camps surrounding the town, and Sunday afternoon community meetings that brought black and white visitors to campus on equal footing. Once inside the walls of the college there are neither blacks nor whites, only ladies and gentlemen, Bethune told the Literary Digest.

In 1911 Bethune established a hospital alongside the school after her students were refused service in Daytona Beachs whites-only hospital. This school-maintained black hospital grew from two to 20 beds until taken over by the city in 1927. Championing the need for greater educational, social, and political opportunities for blacks, she defied the local Ku Klux Klan by leading a successful black voter registration drive in 1920, particularly among women who had just been granted the vote by constitutional amendment. Her guiding motto was be calm, be steadfast, be courageous.

Strong support by the local black community and influential whites, including James M. Gamble of Procter & Gamble and Thomas H. White of the White Sewing Machine Company, spurred the schools expansion. By 1923 the Daytona Institute had 300 girls enrolled and a 25-member faculty and staff on its eight-building, 20-acre campus. Though most were elementary students, the high school and teacher-training programs were growing.

Served as College President

Also in 1923 Bethune transformed her school into a college whose primary purpose was the training of future teachers. With the sponsorship of the Board of Education for Negroes of the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Daytona Institute was merged with the Cookman Institute, a Jacksonville, Florida, mens college. The new coeducational school doubled its enrollment to 600 and was officially renamed Bethune-Cookman College in 1929. Three years later it received junior college accreditation. The high school department was discontinued in 1936, and the first graduates of its four-year teacher education program received their degrees in 1943.

As college president, Bethune traveled throughout the United States soliciting funds for her school, often using her talent as singer and orator to charm potential donors. At the same time Bethune began her rise to national prominence through her work in organizing the black womens club movement. From 1917 to 1924 she was president of the Florida Federation of Colored Women. In 1920 she founded and served as president of a regional association that became the Southeastern Federation of Colored Women. Four years later she became president of the 10,000-member National Association of Colored Women (NACW), at that time thought to be the highest position a black women could achieve.

Promoted Dignity as Black Organizer

Bethunes tenure was marked by her ceaseless attempts to project a positive image of black women. She traveled widely making countless speeches, defending the dignity of black women by refusing to answer to Mary, Auntie, or any other common derogatory remarks of the era. A large woman, she developed a flair for dress characterized by capes, velvet dresses, jewelry, and a cane she carried for swank. At the organizational level, she affiliated the NACW with the white-run National Council of Women, revised its constitution, raised enough money to establish its first permanent headquarters in Washington, D.C., and promoted better communication between members.

Still, Bethune felt the NACW was too locally oriented to present an effective national voice for black women. So in 1935 she created the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) by uniting the major national black womens associations. As NCNW president from its founding until 1949, Bethune focused the organizations activities against segregation and discrimination toward black women, on cultivating better international relations, and on national liberal causes. She established national headquarters in Washington, D.C., chapters in major cities, employed a full-time staff, and published the Aframerican Womens Journal.

In addition, Bethune found time to serve as president of the National Association of Teachers in Colored Schools, vice-president of the Commission on Interracial Cooperation, and president of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. She also worked with the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, the National Urban League, and the NAACP, which presented her with its Spingarn Medal for distinguished achievement in 1935.

Played a Role in National Politics

Bethune had met Eleanor Roosevelt through her club work. The presidents wife used her influence to have Bethune appointed to the National Advisory Committee of the National Youth Administration (NYA) in 1935, a New Deal agency established to help young people find employment during the Depression. The 35 advisory committee members were civic and professional leaders who formulated nationwide NYA policy.

Bethune also served as director of the NYAs Division of Negro Affairs from its creation in 1935 until it was terminated in 1943. Here, she forcefully advocated a program of equitable representation of blacks in all levels (national, state, and local) of the NYAs administration. Though pragmatically accepting segregation as an unfortunate reality, she nevertheless insisted upon equal, albeit often separate, consideration of blacks in all agency activities and programs. She continually pressed for greater opportunities for black youths to learn skilled trades, and for their later employment in defense industries during World War II.

The college president was becoming a national leader for black interests. In August of 1936 she brought together in her home blacks holding various positions in the Roosevelt administration to plan strategy to secure a better life for African Americans under the New Deal. Weekly meetings of this black cabinet at Bethunes house supported the emerging drive for civil rights, promoted nondiscrimination in government facilities, sought greater opportunities for blacks in government jobs, and urged black support of the New Deal, President Roosevelts historic program that effectively ended the Depression.

Drawing upon her growing power and influence, Bethune gained NYA support for two national conferences in 1937 and 1939 that spotlighted the plight of blacks throughout the nation. Personally bringing the conference findings to President Roosevelt, she urged him to advance civil rights. Bethune also used her personal friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt to advance the black cause.

Working outside government, Bethune promoted civil rights reforms by marching and picketing Washington, D.C., businesses that refused to hire blacks. She spoke and demonstrated to gain rights for black sharecroppers, and became a regular speaker for the NAACP and other civil rights organizations. She also supported drives to free the Scottsboro Boysnine young black men who were accused of raping two white women on a freight train and were tried in Scottsboro, Alabama, in 1931. The men were hastily convicted although the case went on for 20 years, even after one of the plaintiffs recanted her story and medical evidence could not prove that rape was committed.

Addressing white organizations, Bethune adopted her more subdued and affable, down-home style. Typical is a speech during a 1937 NYA field trip through Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri recounted by B. Joyce Ross in the Journal of Negro History. You white folks have long been eating the white meat of the chicken. We Negroes are now ready for some of the white meat instead of the dark meat.

Active Final Years

Ill health forced Bethune to give up the presidency of Bethune-Cookman College in 1942, though she remained president emeritus until her death. When the NYA disbanded in 1943, she left government service, but served as special representative of the U.S. State Department at the 1945 San Francisco Conference that established the United Nations. She also acted as special assistant to the secretary of war for selection of candidates for the Womens Army Corps (WAC) that same year. She resigned as NCNW president in 1949, retiring to her home in Daytona Beach that she later deeded to the Mary McLeod Bethune Foundation in 1953 to promote research, interracial activity, and the sponsorship of wider educational opportunities.

Until her death from a heart attack in 1955 Bethune remained the most influential black woman in the United States, continuing her struggle for equal rights. She received many national and international honors for her work, and in 1952 traveled to Liberia as U.S. representative to the inauguration of that African countrys president.

Knowing death was imminent, Bethune wrote My Last Will and Testament for Ebony magazine, laying out the principles by which she had led her life. To future generations she stressed her legacy of love for others, hope for the future, a thirst for education, respect for the uses of power, faith in God, belief in racial dignity, the challenge of developing confidence in blacks and black institutions, a desire to live harmoniously with all races, and everyones responsibility to the young.

Bethunes remarkable leadership skills and dynamic oratory brought the problems of African-Americans to national attention. Though usually conciliatory rather than confrontational on the issue of racial equality, Bethune persisted in seeking for all blacks, especially women, educational and economic opportunity. Through her work with national womens clubs and in the federal government, she tirelessly advocated the advancement of the black race. After death, Bethune was buried on the Bethune-Cookman campus. A statue commemorating her leadership was later dedicated in Lincoln Park, Washington, D.C.the first statue in honor of any woman or any black in a public park in the nations capital.

Selected writings

Newspaper columnist for Chicago Defender and Pittsburgh Courier and contributor to periodicals, including Ebony, Opportunity, and Journal of Negro History. Also contributor to book What the Negro Wants, edited by Rayford Logan, 1944.



Greenfield, Eloise, Mary McLeod Bethune, Crowell, 1977.

Holt, Rackham, Mary McLeod Bethune: A Biography, Doubleday, 1964.

Meltzer, Milton, Mary McLeod Bethune: Voice of Black Hope, Viking Kestrel, 1987.

Peare, Catherine Owens, Mary McLeod Bethune, Vanguard, 1951.

Sterne, Emma Gelders, Mary McLeod Bethune, Knopf, 1957.


Ebony, December 1982; November 1985.

Journal of Negro History, January 1975.

Literary Digest, March 6, 1937.

Readers Digest, July 1941.

James J. Podesta

Bethune, Mary McLeod (1875–1955)

views updated Jun 11 2018

Bethune, Mary McLeod (1875–1955)

One of America's most outstanding educators, as well as a major advocate of racial equality and civil rights. Pronunciation: Beth-OON. Born Mary McLeod on July 10, 1875, near Mayesville, South Carolina; died on May 18, 1955, in Daytona Beach, Florida; 15th child of Samuel McLeod (a farmer) and Patsy McIntosh; educated at Trinity Presbyterian Mission School for Negroes near Mayesville, South Carolina; Scotia Seminary, Concord, North Carolina; Moody Bible Institute, Chicago, Illinois; married Albertus Bethune, in 1898; children: one son, Albert (b. 1899).

On the afternoon of July 10, 1974, a crowd of over 20,000 gathered to witness the mayor of Washington, D.C., dedicate a monument in the city's Lincoln Park, the first statue in the capital to honor either an African-American or a woman. There was no doubt, however, that the individual it commemorated richly deserved the distinction: Mary Bethune was one of America's most outstanding educators and principled advocate of racial equality and civil rights.

She was born exactly 99 years earlier on a small farm near the town of Mayesville, South Carolina. Her parents, Samuel and Patsy McLeod (along with the elder of her 16 brothers and sisters), were ex-slaves who had gained their freedom following the victory of Northern forces in the Civil War. The cotton farm which they had managed to acquire in the early 1870s was only about 35 acres in extent which, for such a large family, meant a constant struggle to maintain a subsistence income. As a result, all the children grew up spending much of their time helping in various tasks around the farm. The senior McLeods were both strong Methodists and constantly emphasized to their children the importance of moral standards and the virtues of hard work.

In these economic circumstances, the children had little hope of any kind of formal, substantive education. Mary, however, was unique. From an early age, her parents recognized that

she was a particularly bright and inquisitive child. As such, they went to great lengths and made considerable sacrifices (both of themselves as well as their other children) to ensure that Bethune received a genuine education. Even so, she was almost 11 years old before her parents managed to save enough money to send her to the recently opened Trinity Presbyterian Mission School for Negroes. The school was located in Mayesville about five miles from their farm, a distance Bethune had to walk twice daily.

During Mary's three years at Trinity, her scholastic and intellectual talents blossomed, and she caught the attention of Emma Wilson , an energetic teacher who later went on to found the African-American Mission School. Determined that Bethune continue her education, Wilson contacted Mary Chrissman , a wealthy Quaker schoolteacher originally from Denver, Colorado, and persuaded her to act as Mary's financial patron. Chrissman provided sufficient funds for a scholarship to Scotia Seminary in Concord, North Carolina. Noted for its austere religious atmosphere, Scotia Seminary also provided a sound secondary education in a variety of artistic and domestic subjects. In the six years she spent there, Mary excelled in music and public speaking. She graduated in 1894.

Deeply influenced by her own Methodist background as well as the religious instruction received at Scotia, Bethune wished to serve as a missionary in Africa. To this end, she entered the interdenominational Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. After one year of study and graduation, she applied to the Missionary Society for a placement overseas. In what she later referred to as the "biggest disappointment of her life," she was told that the Society considered her too young for such a situation. Moreover, Bethune was also informed that, as a black, she could not be placed in any position of authority as a missionary.

Instead, she traveled to Augusta, Georgia, where she secured a position as teacher at Lucy Laney 's Haines Institute, founded by Laney and Bethune's close friend Emma Wilson. While there, Bethune became convinced that education was the most powerful tool African-American women could employ to improve their socioeconomic and political positions. Bethune left the Institute to take up a more senior and demanding teaching position at the Kendall Institute located in Sumter, South Carolina.

During this period, she had met Albertus Bethune then an employee at a Presbyterian parsonage. The couple were married in May 1898 and, in the following year, their son Albert, an only child, was born. Mary and Albertus were never particularly close, and their marriage was not happy. Shortly after the birth of their son, Albertus was offered a minor teaching position in Savannah, Georgia, and, when they moved, Bethune was forced to give up her job at the Kendall Institute. She soon decided that, if faced with a choice between her marriage or her career, the latter would take precedence. After only a few weeks in Savannah, she accepted a job at a missionary school in Palatka, Florida. With her young infant in arms, Bethune left her husband (although they remained legally married until Albertus' death in 1918) and set out to face her next challenge.

Bethune did not stay long at the missionary school. In 1900, she established her own presbyterian parochial school in Palatka. From the beginning, this school was plagued with financial difficulties and, despite all her efforts (including taking a part-time job selling life insurance), it was soon forced to close. A similar fate awaited another independent school she founded two years later. In 1904, Bethune visited Daytona Beach, Florida, where she was deeply distressed by the plight of children of African-American railroad workers. Desperately poor, these children had little or no opportunity to gain even the rudiments of a basic education. Bethune was determined to make another attempt to build a school that would address itself to their needs. By October of the same year, she founded what was eventually to become one of the most important and significant educational establishments in the American South, the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Girls.

As always, Bethune was faced by a lack of resources (she would later describe her total assets at this time as "a dollar and a half, and faith in God"). It is not surprising then that the Daytona Institute consisted of a rented cabin which was so small that initial enrollment had to be restricted to just five pupils (aged eight to twelve) as well as her own son. Bethune was determined, however, that this school would not go the way of her other efforts and fail through financial difficulties. She put her pupils to work part-time on an adjoining farm and, in this manner, was able to maintain a cash income and establish a regular, if often barely sufficient, source of food. While these measures were adequate to ensure the short-term durability of the school, Bethune realized that long-term survival would depend on its ability to grow and expand. To this end, she embarked on an ambitious and aggressive program of fund raising.

Bethune, who had always had a talent for music, organized her pupils into a choir which raised money by giving concerts throughout Florida. She then began a series of lecture tours in order to explain the educational principles upon which the Daytona Institute was founded. These concerts and tours were initially supported by local black churches (particularly the Mount Bethal Baptist Church under the guidance of Pastor A.L. James) but quickly drew the attention of the white community as well. In 1905, a Ladies' Advisory Board, consisting of socially prominent and well-off members of the Daytona district, was formed to suggest methods of raising funds. This board was subsequently able to attract a number of wealthy patrons, including John D. Rockefeller of Standard Oil and James N. Gamble, chair of the Proctor and Gamble Manufacturing Company. Moreover, beyond material benefits, this board demonstrated to Bethune the possibilities inherent in genuine interracial cooperation. In her own words, it became a "crossroads of culture and human relations."

Although she was larger than life, her philosophy, her goals were all realistic.

—Walter Washington

Within two years, Bethune and her colleagues had raised enough money to purchase land and build new facilities while enrollment at the school expanded to some 250 pupils (which now included boys). Bethune added depth to the curriculum by introducing a wide variety of new courses. In addition, she was one of the first in the area to organize summer schools. She also strongly encouraged her pupils to participate in outreach programs and community projects in the vicinity. Although not all members of the community were happy with Bethune's success (she was, for instance, occasionally threatened by members of the Ku Klux Klan), the school prospered.

Bethune was flexible in her approach to new problems; thus, when fresh needs arose, she was able to respond in a practical fashion. In 1911, she was one of the prime movers in organizing what became known as the McLeod Hospital. This institution, the first of its kind in the South, was founded when white-owned-and-managed hospitals refused to provide training facilities for African-American physicians and nurses.

Bethune did not, however, confine herself to the field of education. During World War I, she was elected president of the Florida Federation of Colored Women's Clubs and directed the membership to support various types of war work. Similarly, she acted as a lecturer for the Red Cross and became co-founder of the Circle of Negro War Relief for New York City.

Her interests continued to expand in the postwar years. In 1920, she encouraged the Florida clubwomen to found a home for delinquent girls in Ocala which provided support and training until such time as they could re-enter the community. At the same time, she served on the executive board of the Southeastern Association of Colored Women and as vice-president of the Commission on Interracial Cooperation. Bethune was a founder and executive member of the National Association of Wage Earners and of the International Council of Women of the Darker Races of the World.

Perhaps Bethune's greatest educational triumph came in 1923 by which time the Daytona Institute had over 300 pupils and a staff of 25. Its burgeoning reputation made it possible to organize a merger with the Cookman Institute, a co-educational college located in Jacksonville, Florida. Cookman was a Methodist college which, over the previous 50 years, had managed to create its own distinguished name. This merger effectively relieved Bethune of any further worries since her partners were able to provide needed technical services and further financial assistance. Within a few years, the newly named Bethune-Cookman College had become one of the leading junior colleges in the United States. It was for this achievement that Bethune would be awarded the prestigious Spingarn Medal for educational services in 1935 (the second African-American woman to receive this award).

Between 1924 and 1928, Bethune served two terms as president of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) which at that time was the most important secular organization for black women. Under her guidance, the NACW attempted to forge an activist role for black women in international affairs. Bethune sought, she said, to "make this national body of colored women a significant link between the peoples of color throughout the world." Her role in the NACW was complemented in 1935 when she founded the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) for which she served as president for 14 years. The NCNW acted as an umbrella organization coordinating the activities of a wide variety of African-American women's groups, pressuring the national political system for reforms in the areas of public housing, social security, welfare, and anti-discrimination legislation.

By the mid-1930s, Bethune's increasingly prominent public role brought her into contact with Eleanor Roosevelt , who was also deeply interested in interracial issues and the problems of youth. The two women soon became close, and it was thanks to this friendship that Bethune gained access to the president. Franklin D. Roosevelt's most important initiative in these years was a social and economic program that was known as the New Deal. From 1936, Bethune served as the director of Minority Affairs in the New Deal's National Youth Administration, an organization set up in the previous year to assist young people. In 1939, she became director of the Division of Negro Affairs, at that time the most important appointment an African-American woman had ever held in U.S. government service. Bethune's job was to coordinate other black members of Roosevelt's administration. This, in turn, led to the formation of the Federal Council on Negro Affairs which produced a series of recommendations on civil liberties. These were distributed widely and had the effect of producing more black appointments in government as well as more federal intervention in racial issues.

In 1941, Bethune was a vocal supporter of A. Philip Randolph's March on Washington Movement which led to a presidential order banning racial discrimination in the federal government and in all defense industries. Moreover, following America's entry into World War II in December of the same year, Bethune was appointed a special assistant to the secretary of war and was responsible for the selection of the first females for officer-training schools. Thanks to Bethune's insistence, a fixed portion of the available places were formally reserved for African-American women. Finally, through her participation in the National Youth Administration programs and the Women's Interest Section of the War Department's Bureau of Public Relations, she was able to promote the employment of black youth and women in national defense plants from which they had previously been excluded.

Inevitably, the punishing schedule which Bethune set for herself began to have a serious effect on her health. For many years, she had suffered from chronic asthma which increasingly restricted her ability to travel. Following a particularly severe attack in 1942, Bethune formally relinquished the presidency of her beloved Bethune-Cookman College.

At the end of 1945, she represented the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's (NAACP) at the conference in San Francisco to write the inaugural charter for the United Nations. This conference was overshadowed by the death of President Roosevelt, and Bethune's attendance was interrupted when she was asked to speak at the memorial service in Washington, D.C., as representative of all of America's minority groups. At the end of the service, Eleanor Roosevelt presented Bethune with her late husband's cane as a mark of the respect and esteem in which he had held her.

On the occasion of her 75th birthday in 1950, Mary McLeod Bethune finally left public life and retired to her small home on the Bethune-Cookman campus. Even then, she maintained a strong interest in African-American affairs, establishing a black holiday resort (at Bethune-Volusia beach in Florida) and by creating the philanthropic Bethune Foundation. In January 1952, she was asked by the government to journey to Liberia in Africa as U.S. delegate at the inauguration of President William Tubman.

During her last years, Bethune's public service was rewarded by a number of official honors from various sources: the Thomas Jefferson Award (from the United States), the Medal of Honor and Merit (Haiti) and the Star of Africa (Liberia). These honors were overshadowed, however, by the U.S. Senate's McCarthy Commission which, without any evidence, smeared Bethune as a communist subversive. As a result, local authorities in Englewood, New Jersey, denied her the right to speak at a conference on civil rights. Shortly afterwards, on May 18, 1955, Bethune died of a heart attack.

Perhaps the best summation of the principles that guided Mary Bethune's life is that found in her own words written shortly before her death and which are carved on the pedestal of her monument in Washington, D.C. She wrote: "I leave you love, I leave you hope. 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 faith. I leave you racial dignity."


Finkelstein, Louis. Thirteen Americans: Their Spiritual Autobiographies. NY: Harper, 1953.

Holt, Rackham. Mary McLeod Bethune. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964.

Lerner, Gerda. Black Women in White America. NY: Random House, 1973.

Peare, Catherine Owen. Mary McLeod Bethune. NY: Vanguard, 1951.

Sterne, Emma Gelders. Mary McLeod Bethune. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1957.

suggested reading:

Deutrich, Mabel, and Virginia Purdy. Clio was a Woman: Studies in the History of American Women. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1980.

Smith, Elaine. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980.


The most significant collections of Mary Bethune's papers are held at the Bethune Foundation, Bethune-Cookman College; Armistad Research Center, New Orleans; the National Archives for Black Women's History, Washington, D.C.

Dave Baxter , Department of Philosophy, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

Bethune, Mary McLeod

views updated May 29 2018

Mary McLeod Bethune

born july 10, 1875 mayesville, south carolina

died may 18, 1955 daytona beach, florida

educator, advocate for black americans and women, administrator

Langston Hughes from I Wonder As I Wander: An Autobiographical Journey">

"Colored people all along the eastern seaboard spread a feast whenever Mrs. Bethune passed their way. The chickens went flying off seeking a safe hiding place. They knew some necks would be wrung in her honor to make a heaping platter of southern fried chicken."

langston hughes from i wonder as i wander: an autobiographical journey

Mary McLeod Bethune was an educator, organizer, and activist. She was an advocate and spokeswoman for black Americans and for women in general. Having strong religious faith and a belief in the power of education, Bethune felt that the economic and political power of black women would inevitably increase. Through her confident and dignified behavior, she provided leadership and inspiration to many during a period of legally enforced racial segregation. Appointed by Aubrey Williams (1890–1965; see entry) as the director of the National Youth Administration's Negro Affairs Division, Bethune became the highest-ranking black administrator ever to serve in the federal government up to that time. Appointed in 1936 during the Great Depression, she successfully guided desperately needed assistance to thousands of black youths. Representing and promoting black interests inside the federal government, she was often the only black person present at high-level government policy meetings. She was both a role model and mother figure to many.

From humble roots

Bethune was born in 1875 in Mayesville, South Carolina, to former slaves who raised cotton on a 5-acre plot they had purchased. It was only a decade after the American Civil War (1861–65), and antiblack violence was common throughout the South. She was the fifteenth of seventeen children and grew up in a four-room log cabin. Though none of her family could read, Bethune proved to be a gifted student. After attending a one-room Presbyterian mission school in Mayesville, she attended Scotia Seminary for black girls (later Barber-Scotia College) in Concord, North Carolina.

Upon her graduation in 1894, Bethune journeyed to Chicago, Illinois, and attended the Moody Bible Institute for Home Foreign Missions. Bethune had plans to be a missionary in Africa, spreading the Christian religion and educating the young. However, no positions were open for her, so she turned to a career in education. At first Bethune returned to Mayesville to work as an assistant at the Presbyterian mission school she had previously attended. Soon she received an appointment to the Haines Normal and Industrial Institute in Augusta, Georgia, a school for girls. There she sharpened her skills at teaching all levels, from elementary to vocational courses.

From the Haines Institute Bethune moved on to the Kendell Institute in Sumter, South Carolina. In Sumter she met and married clothing salesman Albertus Bethune in 1898. They would have one child, a son. By 1899 she was ready to start a school of her own. Bethune and her family moved to Palatka, Florida, where she started a mission school and taught for five years. In 1904 Bethune was invited by a local reverend to start a school in Daytona Beach, Florida. In an old two-story cottage, Bethune founded the Daytona Literary and Industrial School for Training Negro Girls. While she was busily nurturing the new school, her marriage fell apart. Albertus returned to South Carolina in 1907 and died in 1918. They had never divorced.

Social activist

Bethune's reputation as an organizer and administrator rapidly grew. She became more outspoken on key issues besides education, including women's suffrage (right to vote), black American voter registration, school desegregation (allowing black students and white students to attend the same schools), and access to health care. Bethune campaigned for women's suffrage with the Equal Suffrage League, a branch of the National Association of Colored Women. When women gained the right to vote in 1920, she strongly encouraged black American women to vote.

Bethune served as president of the Florida Federation of Colored Women's Clubs from 1917 to 1925 and organized black women's clubs throughout the Southeast. She also served as president of the Southeastern Federation of Colored Women's Clubs from 1920 to 1925. She became vice president of the National Urban League in 1920 and created a women's section in that organization. Meanwhile, her Daytona Beach school for black girls had grown from a small elementary school to a college. In 1923 the school merged with Cookman Institute, a school for boys, to form the coeducational Bethune-Cookman College. Bethune served as the college's president. From 1924 to 1928 she also served as president for the prestigious National Association of Colored Women, taking on her first national role in promoting issues important to women and black Americans. In this new role Bethune attended the Child Welfare Conference called by President Calvin Coolidge (1872–1933; served 1923–29) and then participated in the National Child Welfare Commission under President Herbert Hoover (1874–1964; served 1929–33; see entry).

From 1929 to 1941, the period of severe U.S. economic problems called the Great Depression, Bethune continued her activism. In 1933 and 1934 she served on a federal committee to promote education of black youths. In 1935 she established and became president of the National Council of Negro Women, a coalition of hundreds of black women's organizations in the United States. That same year, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) awarded Bethune its highest honor in recognition of her efforts to advance the political causes of minorities. In 1936 Bethune also became president of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. Through her leadership in women's and education initiatives, Bethune became good friends with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962; see entry).

Life in the government

Bethune's next post was with the National Youth Administration (NYA). President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45; see entry) created the NYA in June 1935 to help keep young people in school. Roosevelt believed that if students could not contribute to family income during the Depression years of economic hardship, they would likely have to quit school and seek work, so the NYA was designed to provide part-time employment to people ages sixteen to twenty-five.

The president appointed Aubrey Williams, a white native of Alabama, to be executive director of the agency. Greatly disturbed by the poverty and racial injustice he witnessed as a youth, Williams had become a social worker in order to fight poverty; he was a natural fit for Roosevelt's New Deal program. ("New Deal" was the name given to the many programs the Roosevelt administration initiated to help America recover from the Depression.) Determined to bring minorities into the New Deal work relief projects, Williams appointed Bethune first as an adviser and then as director of the NYA's Negro Affairs Division. Due to Bethune's efforts, about three hundred thousand black youths participated in the NYA, making up 10 to 12 percent of all participants. Bethune led the Negro Affairs Division until it was closed in 1943.

As an official member of the New Deal administration, Bethune pursued issues of importance to black Americans. She organized the "Black Cabinet," a small group of black federal officials who advised the White House on such issues. In 1937 Bethune organized the National Conference on the Problems of the Negro and Negro Youth. Held in Washington, D.C., the conference tackled critical issues such as health care, legal protections, and housing needs. In 1939 Bethune organized a second national conference on black American issues. These two conferences were perhaps the high point in Bethune's illustrious public career, confirming her role as a national black leader. Throughout the 1930s Bethune also fought hard, but unsuccessfully, for antilynching laws.

Following the Depression, Bethune maintained an active role inside government. As special assistant to the secretary of war, Bethune recruited black women to the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps; they received officer training for service in World War II (1939–45). She also became head of the Women's Army for National Defense, a black women's organization pressing for greater roles for black women in national defense. After the war, President Harry Truman (1884–1972; served 1945–53) sent Bethune to an United Nations organizational meeting in San Francisco, California. There Bethune met with people of color from other parts of the world.

The Black Cabinet

During his first few years in office, President Roosevelt became increasingly aware of major issues important to black Americans. However, no blacks held high government advisory positions to keep the president apprised on such matters. To fill this void in formal black leadership, in 1936 Mary McLeod Bethune, head of the Negro Division of the National Youth Administration, helped organize a group of black government employees to advise Roosevelt on issues of importance to the black community. It was the first group of its kind. They officially called themselves the Federal Council on Negro Affairs, but they were popularly known as the "Black Cabinet." The group would periodically visit the White House to meet with the president. Besides Bethune, the Black Cabinet included William H. Hastie, an attorney in the Interior Department; Robert C. Weaver, an economist in the Interior Department; Edgar Brown of the Civilian Conservation Corps; Robert L. Vann, editor of the Pittsburgh Courier and special assistant in the Justice Department; and Lawrence A. Oxley, a social worker in the Department of Labor.

With the guidance of this advisory group, President Roosevelt began reaching out to black Americans. As a result, the political party Roosevelt represented, the Democrats, gained the support of black Americans across the nation for decades to come. However, despite the Black Cabinet's suggestions, Roosevelt refused to actively promote antilynching bills in Congress and the proposed prohibitions against the poll taxes (fees to vote, which the poor, largely black population, could not afford) charged at election booths. These were two major civil rights goals supported by black Americans during the 1930s. But Roosevelt feared that promoting these goals could cost him the support of white Southern Democrats, support that was critical for his New Deal programs. Still, thanks to Bethune, the Black Cabinet gave black Americans never-before-seen representation in the White House.

Later Life

Always active in education and civil rights, Bethune wrote numerous magazine articles and newspaper columns on the subjects. In addition she used an authoritative voice to give highly inspirational speeches. She continued these activities until her death in 1955. Bethune's social activism helped set the stage for the civil rights movement of the 1950s. She lived long enough to witness the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision prohibiting racial segregation in public schools.

Bethune won many awards for her work. In 1930 she was listed among America's greatest women. Nearly six decades later, in 1989, Ebony magazine listed her among the fifty most important black figures in U.S. history, along with Frederick Douglass (1817–1895) and Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968). While attending the 1949 Haiti Exposition she was given Haiti's highest award, the Medal of Honor and Merit. As a U.S. representative to Liberia in Africa she received Liberia's top award, the Commander of the Order of the Star of Africa. In July 1974 Bethune became the first black and the first woman to have a national monument dedicated to her in Washington, D.C.—the Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial Statue at Lincoln Park.

For More Information


anderson, lavere. mary mcleod bethune: teacher with a dream. champaign, il: garrard, 1976.

holt, rackham. mary mcleod bethune: a biography. garden city, ny: doubleday, 1964.

hughes, langston. i wonder as i wander. new york, ny: rinehart, 1956.

mccluskey, audrey thomas, and elaine m. smith, eds. mary mcleodbethune: building a better world, essays and selected documents. bloomington, in: indiana university press, 1999.

peare, catherine o. mary mcleod bethune. new york, ny: vanguard press, 1951.

sterne, emma g. mary mcleod bethune. new york, ny: knopf, 1957.

Web Sites

bethune-cookman college. (accessed on september 4, 2002).

Mary McLeod Bethune

views updated May 14 2018

Mary McLeod Bethune

Excerpt from "National Youth Administration:
Proceedings of the Second National Youth
Administration Advisory Committee Meeting"

delivered by mary mcleod bethune in 1936
reprinted frommary mcleod bethune:
building a better world, essays and selected documents
edited by audrey thomas mccluskey and elaine m. smith
published in 1999

"The Negro views with deep interest the national program for all youth and approves most highly its objectives."

mary mcleod bethune

The National Youth Administration (NYA), part of the massive Works Progress Administration (WPA) established in 1935, was designed to meet the educational and employment needs of young Americans between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five. To keep youths off the rails and in schools, the agency provided cash aid to high school, college, and graduate school students. Students worked part-time, generally on school-related jobs (such as custodial duties or maintenance of school grounds), in return for small monthly cash payments. Often the payments were just enough to allow the student to stay in school. For young people who had already left school, the NYA provided work relief programs that employed youths to build community and recreation centers. In cooperation with local communities, the NYA also provided an array of vocational training classes. Within the first year of the NYA's operation, in 1936, more than five hundred thousand students received cash aid, including nineteen thousand black American youths under the Negro Affairs branch of the agency. Mary McLeod Bethune (1875–1955) was appointed the first director of the NYA's Negro Affairs Division.

Bethune was already well known and respected by black Americans throughout the nation. Bethune was an educator, a social activist, and a leader in many organizations that promoted the rights and well-being of black Americans. She served as president of Bethune-Cookman College, a college that served black American women and men.

Gaining attention at the highest levels of the U.S. government, Bethune served at the Child Welfare Conference under President Calvin Coolidge (1872–1933; served 1923–29) and on the National Child Welfare Commission under President Herbert Hoover (1874–1964; served 1929–33). Bethune's leadership in education was matched by her leadership in many organizations, including the Florida Federation of Colored Women's Clubs, the Southeastern Federation of Colored Women's Clubs, and the National Association of Colored Women. In 1935 she founded and served as president of the National Council of Negro Women. That same year the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) presented her with its highest award for advancing the cause of minorities.

Eleanor Roosevelt and Bethune became close friends. Bethune was a key adviser to the Roosevelts on minority issues. The NYA was the first government-sponsored agency to aid black American youths. As director of Negro Affairs within the NYA, Bethune sought cooperation from the black American public and from black American educators and leaders to develop NYA programs for black students. Bethune noted that the program was not only helpful to black students but was also instrumental in developing leaders among the black adult population. In the following excerpt from "National Youth Administration: Proceedings of the Second National Youth Administration Advisory Committee Meeting," Bethune conveys the message that the NYA was indeed successful in aiding black students and the entire black community.

Things to remember while reading the excerpt from "National Youth Administration: Proceedings of the Second National Youth Administration Advisory Committee Meeting":

  • In the 1930s racism remained woven into every aspect of life in the United States and was freely expressed in public.
  • Major New Deal programs established in 1933 and 1934 offered little opportunity for black Americans. Only when First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt openly committed to changing public attitudes toward black Americans and improving black Americans' economic condition did positive changes begin. With Eleanor Roosevelt's insistence, racial discrimination was weeded out of some federal programs, relief aid targeted more blacks, and several blacks were appointed to higher federal positions.
  • Mary McLeod Bethune was the first black American to head a federal government agency.

Excerpt from "National Youth Administration: Proceedings of the Second National Youth Administration Advisory Committee Meeting"

I want first of all to express on the part of the Negro people, our appreciation for the vision of our illustrious President, and his committee, in extending to the nation this NYA program. In my opinion and I think I am thinking in terms of thinking Negro people, I believe it to be one of the most stabilizing projects for the benefit of the American of tomorrow, than possibly any one thing that we have done.

It seems to me that the giving of opportunity to the youths of today to round out in training and in vision for the citizen[s] of tomorrow is vitally important.

The Negro views with deep interest the national program for all youth and approves most highly its objectives. More particularly is the Negro interested in those phases of the program, which for the first time in the history of the nation, affords to Negro youth through Federal benefits , larger opportunities for education, productive work and cultural and wholesome recreation. Among the most invaluable outcomes of the National Youth program as related to the Negro youth have been:

  1. His optimistic awakening to the responsibility of citizenship made possible through the channels of training provided through the program of the National Youth Administration.
  2. The fine spirit of cooperation of the general Negro public in fostering the objectives of the program of the NYA.
  3. The fine spirit of cooperation and healthy participation on the part of Negro educators and leaders, and state and local NYA Administrators.

I think, Mr. Chairman, and members of this committee, this NYA program has afforded the finest opportunity for interracial cooperation and understanding in these local communities, than any one thing that we have had come among us, particularly in our own southern section.


Illustrious: outstanding and honorable.

Round out

Round out: be developed.

Federal benefits:

Federal benefits: benefits provided through u.s. government programs.


Fostering: helping to promote.

Interracial cooperation

Interracial cooperation: cooperation between black americans and white americans.

Through the program of the National Youth movement touching the humblest black boy of the South has come a realization on
the part of thousands of untutored Negro parents that the government does care,—for 'even the least of these.'

In places where there is no need for a separate program, for Negro and white groups, we most heartily recommend the one program. And in fields where it is necessary for us to have a separate program, we most heartily recommend a separate program, taking, of course, under advisement , the necessity of the proper leadership and guidance [so] that we might be able to do the most effective work [good leaders are needed to ensure the programs' success].

It is recommended that this committee accept as a matter of policy the following: Continuing the policy adopted by the committee at its previous meeting regarding the appointment of qualified Negroes as members of staffs of state and local organizations; and the recognition of the value of Negro Supervision for strictly Negro work projects.

Taking under advisement:

Taking under advisement: keeping in mind.


Enter: participate.

May I advise the committee that it does not matter how equipped your white supervision might be, or your white leadership, it is impossible for you to enter as sympathetically and understandingly,into the program of the Negro, as the Negro can do. Then it will give, also, the thing that we very much need nowadays, that opportunity for the development of leadership among the Negro people themselves, and it is becoming more important that the right type of leadership be produced. They can only become efficient by having the opportunity to develop and grow in participation in these programs .…

The committee must not permit itself to be turned aside from the prosecution and realization of the major objectives of the National Youth program, chief of which is the development of an appreciation of citizenship values in the minds of American youth regardless of race, creed or color.

Prosecution and realization

Prosecution and realization: pursuit and accomplishment.


Earmarked: set aside.

Since in some states, particularly in the south where Negroes have not had the opportunities for preparation for college life, it is recommended that funds be earmarked to be used specifically for Negro youth in equalizing educational opportunities in certain states where the Negro has not been able to obtain equal educational opportunities.

I beg this Committee, whose position is so sacred in administering this program as handed down by our illustrious President, to keep eternal vigilance to safeguard the interest and welfare of all the youth of America. I speak particularly in behalf of the Negro youth. (Applause.).… [McCluskey and Smith, pp. 216–218]

What happened next…

The Negro Affairs Division of the NYA remained in operation until 1944. Bethune served as director throughout the division's existence. Because of Bethune's efforts, 10 to 12 percent of the young people who participated in the NYA were black. Overall, approximately three hundred thousand black youths benefited from NYA programs.

In response to the actions of the Roosevelt administration on behalf of black Americans, black voters switched from voting Republican to voting for Roosevelt, a Democrat, in the 1936 presidential election. Many black Americans voted for the first time. In the 1932 presidential election Herbert Hoover, a Republican, won 66 percent of the black vote; only four years later Roosevelt won 76 percent. This shift in black American voters' loyalty turned out to be a lasting trend: At the beginning of the twenty-first century, a majority of black American voters continue to support the Democratic Party.

Eternal vigilance:

Eternal vigilance: a careful watch.

In 1937 Bethune organized the National Conference on Problems of the Negro, which was held in Washington, D.C., and in 1939 she organized a second national conference on black American issues. Following the Depression, Bethune remained active in government, recruiting black women to the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) for officer training during World War II (1939–45); she also headed a black women's organization called the Women's Army for National Defense. Bethune participated in the organizational meetings of the United Nations after World War II. She continued to write and lecture until her death in 1955. Her work helped set the stage for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

Did you know…

  • Mary McLeod Bethune was born in South Carolina in 1875, only a decade after the end of the American Civil War. She was the fifteenth child in a family of seventeen children and proved to be a gifted student at an early age.
  • Confident and dignified, Bethune provided leadership and inspiration for many black Americans and for women in general.
  • Bethune was the unofficial leader of Roosevelt's "Black Cabinet," a group of black federal officials who informally advised the president on issues of special importance to black Americans.
  • In 1989 Ebony, an influential magazine for black Americans, listed Bethune—along with such prominent people as Frederick Douglass (1817–1895) and Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968)—as one of the fifty most important black Americans in U.S. history.

Consider the following…

  • Why did Bethune call the NYA program "one of the most stabilizing projects for the benefit of the American of tomorrow, than possibly any one thing that we have done"?
  • According to Bethune, whom did the NYA benefit in addition to black youths?
  • What did Bethune say was the chief objective of the NYA?

For More Information


anderson, lavere. mary mcleod bethune: teacher with a dream. champaign, il: garrard, 1976.

mccluskey, audrey thomas, and elaine m. smith, eds. mary mcleod bethune: building a better world, essays and selected documents. bloomington, in: indiana university press, 1999.

ware, susan. beyond suffrage: women in the new deal. cambridge, ma: harvard university press, 1981.

ware, susan. holding their own: american women in the 1930s. boston, ma: twayne publishers, 1982.

Web Sites

bethune-cookman college. (accessed on august 29, 2002).

Bethune, Mary Mcleod

views updated May 18 2018


Mary McLeod Bethune (18751955) was an educator and activist who founded a college in Florida for African-American women. She promoted education for African Americans at the national level and served on many presidential committees. Involved in the women's movement, Bethune founded and led organizations that represented African-American women in the United States.

Mary McLeod Bethune was born on July 10, 1875, near Mayesville, South Carolina. She was the fifteenth of seventeen children born to former slaves. As a child, she worked in a cotton field, where she developed a strong work ethic and an appreciation for manual labor. Because of her strong desire to learn how to read and write, Bethune was allowed to attend the one-room schoolhouse in Mayesville. Her teacher recognized her talent for learning and recommended her for a scholarship to attend Scotia Seminary in Concord, North Carolina. Bethune graduated from the seminary in 1894 and then won a scholarship to the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago.

Bethune started her career as a teacher's assistant in 1896, at the same Mayesville school she had attended. Next she received an appointment from the Presbyterian Board of Education to teach at the Haines Normal and Industrial Institute in Augusta, Georgia. Under the direction of Lucy Craft Laney, Bethune learned a great deal about how to administer a girls' school with primary, grammar, normal, and industrial courses. In 1898 Bethune was transferred to the Kendell Institute in Sumpter, South Carolina, where she met her husband-to-be, Albertus Bethune. The couple married in May 1898, and Bethune gave birth to their son, Albertus McLeod Bethune, Jr., in February 1899.

While living with her new family in Savannah, Georgia, Bethune met Reverent C.J. Uggans, a Presbyterian minister from Palatka, Florida, who encouraged her to found a school in Palatka. Bethune took the opportunity and spent the next five years there. Not only did she start a community school, but she also worked in the jails, sawmills, and clubs teaching and doing missionary work. A few years later, she was encouraged by Reverend S.P. Pratt to move to Daytona and start a new school. In 1904 Bethune opened the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls. Bethune worked tirelessly at the school to develop its academic program and earn regional accreditation. In addition, because she had no assets with which to fund the school, Bethune spent a considerable amount of time soliciting contributions from both the African American and white communities. In 1923 Bethune's school merged with the Cookman Institute for Men, then in Jacksonville, and in 1929 the institution became known as the Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach. Bethune served as president of the college until 1947. The college awarded its first four-year degrees in teacher education in 1943.

Bethune was not only an educator, but also a leader and an activist. In 1924 she became the eighth president of the National Association of Colored Women's (NACW) clubs, and in that position she helped establish a national headquarters for the organization in Washington, D.C. In addition, Bethune also served on many presidential committees. In 1928 she attended President Calvin Coolidge's (19231929) Child Welfare Conference. During President Herbert Hoover's (19291933) administration she attended the National Commission for Child Welfare and served on the Hoover Commission on Home Building and Home Ownership. She was appointed to the Planning Committee of the Federal Office of Education of Negroes in 1933.

Aside from her work with the NACW, Bethune was active in other aspects of the women's movement during the 1920s and 1930s. In 1935 she founded the National Council of Negro Women in New York City, and remained president of that organization until 1949. Through the activities with the women's movement Bethune came to the attention of Eleanor Roosevelt (18841962), who invited her to attend a luncheon for leaders of the National Council of Women in the United States. Bethune was appointed administrator of the National Youth Administration (NYA) by President Franklin D. Roosevelt (19331945), a position she held from 1935 to 1944. During her tenure with the NYA, Bethune was instrumental in encouraging African Americans to join the Democratic Party, and she traveled around the country promoting Roosevelt's New Deal policies. In addition, Bethune founded the Federal Council on Negro Affairs, a group of prominent African American administrators in Washington during the Roosevelt administration who became known as the "black cabinet."

The NYA was abolished in 1943, and Bethune returned to Daytona Beach. She was, however, still involved in national affairs. Bethune lobbied the United States War Department in 1942 to commission black women officers in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC). Two years later she became the national commander of the Women's Army for National Defense, an African American women's organization founded by Lovonia H. Brown. After World War II (19391945), Bethune became involved in international activities, traveling to Haiti, Liberia, and Switzerland.

Mary McLeod Bethune died of a heart attack on May 18, 1955. Her legacy lives on not only through the Bethune-Cookman College, but also through the Mary McLeod Bethune foundation. In addition, her home, "The Retreat," was made a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Services in 1975.

See also: Women's Movement


Bethune, Mary McLeod. Mary McLeod Bethune Papers: The Bethune-Cookman College Collection, 1922-1955. Bethesda, MD: University Publications of America, 1995.

Height, Dorothy I. "Remembering Mary McLeod Bethune." Essence, February 1994.

McCluskey, Audrey Thomas. "Multiple Consciousness in the Leadership of Mary McLeod Bethune." NWSA Journal, 6, Spring 1994.

Norment, Lynn. "10 Most Unforgettable Black Women." Ebony, February 1990.

Smith, Elaine M. "Mary McLeod Bethune's 'Last Will and Testament': A Legacy for Race Vindication." The Journal of Negro History, 81, Winter-Fall 1996.

Chicago Defender, May 1954">

we must gain full equality in education . . . in the franchise . . . in economic opportunity, and full equality in the abundance of life.

mary mcleod bethune, chicago defender, may 1954

Bethune, Mary McLeod

views updated May 23 2018

BETHUNE, Mary McLeod

Born 10 July 1875, near Mayesville, South Carolina; died 18 May 1955, Daytona, Florida

Daughter of Samuel and Patsy McLeod; married AlbertusBethune, 1898

Born to former slaves, Mary McLeod Bethune realized early the importance of education in improving the quality of life. Upon graduating from Mayesville Institute, she attended Scotia Seminary in Concord, North Carolina, and pursued further studies at Moody Institute in Chicago. Two black women, Emma Wilson, Bethune's first teacher, and Lucy Laney, her first principal and employer, inspired her by giving her an educational opportunity and by serving as models in opening schools for blacks. Moreover, the teachers at Scotia taught her about the evils of discrimination. Following these examples, Bethune devoted her life to offering others educational opportunities and to combating "color, caste and class distinctions."

After marrying, Bethune taught in mission schools in the South, and in 1904 she opened the Daytona Educational and Industrial School for Training Negro Girls; in 1923 the school merged with Cookman Institute and became Bethune-Cookman College, and Bethune remained head of the school until 1942.

It was as an educator and founder of a school that Bethune first achieved recognition, but she refused to confine her talent and effort to one institution or to one group of people—she became a national and international leader in the cause of equality, peace, and brotherhood. In 1920 she was elected to the Executive Board of the National Urban League. In "The Problems of the City Dweller" (Opportunity, 3 Feb. 1925), Bethune pointed out the discrepancy between the El Dorado of the "country lad's dreams" and the economic, social, and educational oppression found in urban centers. She urged the Urban League to focus attention on the problems of the city dweller, calling equally for the "breaking down of racial barriers" and for the aiding of immigrants.

Bethune served as vice president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and formed the National Council of Negro Women. She was also president of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History and urged scholars and researchers to discover, interpret, and disseminate the truth "in the field of Negro life." She reminded them that the "social usefulness of scholarship and its findings depends upon its translation into the common tongue." Focusing upon this same theme in a 1939 speech, "The Adaptation of the History of the Negro to the Capacity of the Child" (Journal of Negro History, Jan. 1939), she pointed out that children must have "a true picture of races" because "peace is based on international understanding and good will."

Bethune's talent, energy, and resources were drawn upon by two U.S. presidents. President Hoover invited her to the White House Conference on Child Health and Protection and to the President's Conference on Home Building and Home Ownership. Under Franklin D. Roosevelt she served as Director of the Division of Negro Affairs in the National Youth Administration and as a representative to the San Francisco Conference to draw up a permanent charter for the United Nations. At that conference she helped draft a statement calling for a World Bill of Rights and urging nations "to face what is one of the most serious problems of the 20th century—the question of race and color."

Throughout her career Bethune asserted her belief in the promise of the American dream, pointed out the discrepancy between the ideal and reality, and sought to extend the promise to all groups. Moreover, her travels and living through two world wars made her aware of America's role in the world and of the ties that bind all people. In "Certain Unalienable Rights," she brings these realizations together, asserting that the black American's desire for equality was rooted in the American principles of democracy and that the black Americans who were angry were analogous to the Boston Tea Party patriots. To Bethune these black Americans were among the "depressed and repressed masses all over the world" who were "swelling to the breaking point against the walls of the ghettoes." She concluded that America and the world had two alternatives in reacting to the cry for equality: to act "in keeping with American ideals" or to "mimic Hitler."

Bethune's leadership in education and in the cause of "Peace, Progress, Brotherhood and Love" brought her national and international acclaim, as attested by the numerous honors and awards she received, including the Spingarn Medal, the Drexel Award, the Thomas Jefferson Award, the Honor Merit of Haiti Award, and the Star of Africa Award from Liberia. In 1974 a memorial to her was erected in Washington, D.C.

Although she published rarely, and never in volume form, Bethune's essays appeared in Opportunity and in the Journal of Negro History. To reach a more popular audience, she turned to Ebony with "My Secret Talks with Franklin D. Roosevelt" (April 1949) and "My Last Will and Testament" (10 August 1955).

Other Works:

Mary McLeod Bethune, Her Own Words of Inspiration (1975, reprinted 1990). Mary McLeod Bethune Papers, 1923-1942 (microfilm, 1976). Mary McLeod Bethune Papers, Bethune Foundation Collection, Part 2: Correspondence Files, 1914-1955 (1997). "My Last Will and Testament" in Can I Get a Witness? Prophetic Religious Voices of African American Women: An Anthology (1997).


Ashby, R. and D. G. Ohrn, eds., Herstory: Women Who Changed the World (1995). Blackwell, B. G., The Advocacies and Ideological Commitments of a Black Educator: Mary McLeod Bethune, 1875-1955 (dissertation, 1978). Boehm, R., A Guide to the Microfilm Edition of Mary McLeod Bethune Papers: The Bethune-Cookman College Collection, 1922-1955 (1995). Brawley, B., Negro Builders and Heroes (1937). David, S. I., Women Builders (1931). Embree, E. R., Thirteen Against the Odds (1944). Felder, D. G., The 100 Most Influential Women of All Time: A Ranking Past and Present (1996). Greenfield, E., Mary McLeod Bethune (1977). Hall, J. B., "Segregation and the Politics of Race: Mary McLeod Bethune and the National Youth Administration, 1935-1943" (thesis, 1996). Hanson, J. A., The Ties that Bind: Mary McLeod Bethune and the Political Mobilization of African-American Women (dissertation, 1997). Hardy, G. J., American Women Civil Rights Activists: Biobibliographies of 68 Leaders, 1825-1992 (1993). Holt, R., Mary McLeod Bethune: A Biography (1964). McCluskey, A. T., Mary McLeod Bethune and the Education of Black Girls in the South, 1904-1923 (dissertation, 1991). Newsome, C. G., Mary McLeod Bethune in Religious Perspective (dissertation, 1982). Peare, C. O., Mary McLeod Bethune (1951). Poole, B. A., Mary McLeod Bethune (1994). Reynolds, M. D., Women Champions of Human Rights: Eleven U.S. Leaders of the Twentieth Century (1991). Russell, D., Black Genius and the American Experience (1998). Skorapa, O. L., Feminist Theory and the Educational Endeavor of Mary McLeod Bethune (dissertation, 1989). Seller, M., ed., Women Educators in the United States, 1820-1993: A Biobibliographical Sourcebook (1994). Smallwood, D., Profiles of Great African Americans (1998). Young, J. A., A Study of the Educational Philosophies of Three Pioneer Black Women and their Contributions to American Education (dissertation, 1993, 1987).

Other reference:

JNH (1975). Light in the Southern Sky (video, 1994). Mary McLeod Bethune as Shaper of Social Reality (audiocassette, 1986). Mary McLeod Bethune: Educator (video, 1997). Mary McLeod Bethune: Political & Social Development at Home and Abroad (video, 1996). Mary McLeod Bethune: The Spirit of a Champion (video, 1996). Portraits: The Americans (video, 1997). Southern Workman (March 1912). The Story of Mary McLeod Bethune from Cotton Fields to the White House (video, 1990).


Bethune, Mary McLeod

views updated May 21 2018

Bethune, Mary McLeod

July 10, 1875
May 18, 1955

"If I have a legacy to leave my people, it is my philosophy of living and serving. As I face tomorrow, I am content, for 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." With these words, rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune concluded her last will and testament, outlining her legacy to African Americans. Bethune lived up to her stated philosophy throughout her long career as a gifted institution builder who focused on securing rights and opportunities for African-American women and youth. Her stunning successes as a leader made her one of the most influential women of her day and, for many years, a premier African-American leader.

Mary McLeod was born in 1875, the thirteenth of fifteen children of Sam and Patsy (McIntosh) McLeod. The McLeod family, many of whom had been slaves before the Civil War, owned a farm near Mayesville, South Carolina, when Mary was growing up. Mary McLeod attended the

Trinity Presbyterian Mission School near her home from 1885 until 1888, and with the help of her mentor, Emma Jane Wilson, she moved on to Scotia Seminary (later Barber-Scotia College), a Presbyterian school in Concord, North Carolina. McLeod set her sights on serving as a missionary in Africa and so entered the Bible Institute for Home and Foreign Missions (later known as the Moody Bible Institute) in Chicago. She was devastated when she was informed that the Presbyterian Church would not support African-American missionaries to Africa. Instead, McLeod turned her attentions and talents to the field of education at home.

From 1896 through 1897 McLeod taught at the Haines Institute, a Presbyterian-sponsored school in Augusta, Georgia, an experience that proved meaningful for her future. At Haines, McLeod worked with Lucy Craft Laney, the school's founder and a pioneering African-American educator. McLeod took away examples and skills she would put into action throughout her life.

From Haines, McLeod moved on to another Presbyterian school, the Kendall Institute in Sumter, South Carolina, where she met and married Albertus Bethune in 1898. The couple moved to Savannah, Georgia, and in 1899 their only child, Albert Bethune, was born. Although Albertus and Mary McLeod Bethune remained married until Albertus's death in 1918, they were no longer together by 1907. In 1900 Bethune moved to Palatka, Florida, where she founded a Presbyterian school and later an independent school that also offered social services to the community.

In 1904 Bethune settled in Daytona, Florida, to establish a school for African-American girls. She opened her Daytona Educational and Industrial Institute in a rented house with little furniture and a tiny group of students. Students at the school learned basic academic subjects, worked on homemaking skills, engaged in religious activities, and worked with Bethune in the fields of a farm she bought in 1910. Through the farm, Bethune and her students were able to feed the members of the school community, as well as sell the surplus to benefit the school. The Daytona Institute also emphasized connections with the community, offering summer school, a playground for children, and other activities. All of this made Bethune an important voice in her local community.

The school's reputation began to grow at the national level through a visit by Booker T. Washington in 1912 and the addition of Frances Reynolds Keyser to the staff in the same year. Keyser had served as superintendent of the White Rose Mission in New York and was a well-known activist. After World War I the school grew to include a high school and a nurses' training division. In 1923 the school merged with the failing Cookman Institute of Jacksonville, Florida, and embarked on a coeducational program. In 1929 it took the name Bethune-Cookman College. By 1935 Bethune's school, founded on a tiny budget, had become an accredited junior college and, by 1943, a fully accredited college, awarding bachelor's degrees. This success gained Bethune a national reputation and won her the NAACP's prestigious Spingarn Medal in 1935.

In addition to her success as an educator, Bethune also made a major mark on the black women's club movement in America. In 1917 she was elected president of the Florida Association of Colored Women, a post she retained until 1924. Under her leadership the organization established a home for young women in Ocala. In 1920 she organized the Southeastern Federation of Colored Women and guided this group through 1925. From 1924 to 1928 she served as president of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), the most powerful organization of African-American women's clubs in the country. During this period, she toured Europe as the NACW's president and established the organization's headquarters in Washington, D.C., in 1928. Bethune's crowning achievement in the club movement was the 1935 founding of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW). This organization served to coordinate and streamline the cooperative work of a wide variety of black women's organizations. During Bethune's fourteen years as president, the NCNW achieved this goal, began to work closely with the federal government on issues facing African Americans, and developed an international perspective on women's lives.

Bethune's influence with the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration led her to activities that made her an even greater public figure on behalf of African Americans. In 1936 she organized the Federal Council on Negro Affairs, popularly known as the Black Cabinet, a group of black advisers who helped coordinate government programs for African Americans. In this same period, she became deeply involved in the work of the National Youth Administration (NYA), serving on the advisory committee from its founding in 1935. In 1936 Bethune began functioning as director of the NYA's Division of Negro Affairs, a position that became official in 1939 and that she held until 1943. This appointment made her the highest ranking black woman in government up to that point. Bethune's goals in the NYA were to increase the representation of qualified African Americans in leadership in local and state programs and to ensure that NYA benefits distributed to whites and to blacks achieved parity.

In addition to Bethune's many other achievements, she served as the president of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History from 1936 to 1951, established the Mary McLeod Bethune Foundation, and wrote a column for the Pittsburgh Courier. Bethune's career is testimony to her leadership skills, her commitment to justice and equality for African Americans, her unfailing dedication to the ideals of American democracy, and her philosophy of service.

See also Association for the Study of African American Life and History; Bethune-Cookman College; National Association of Colored Women; National Council of Negro Women; Pittsburgh Courier ; Spingarn Medal; Washington, Booker T.


Bethune, Mary McLeod. "My Last Will and Testament." Ebony, August 1955.

Hanson, Joyce Ann. Mary McLeod Bethune and Black Women's Political Activism. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2003.

Holt, Rackham. Mary McLeod Bethune: A Biography. New York: Doubleday, 1964.

Smith, Elaine. "Mary McLeod Bethune and the National Youth Administration." In Clio Was a Woman: Studies in the History of American Women, edited by Mabel E. Deutrich and Virginia C. Purdy. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1980.

judith weisenfeld (1996)
Updated bibliography

Bethune, Mary Mcleod (1875–1955)

views updated May 29 2018


A leading African-American activist and educator, Mary McLeod Bethune was born in a log cabin near Mayesville, South Carolina. Bethune was the fifteenth of seventeen children born to Samuel and Patsy McLeod. Her parents and several of her older siblings had been born slaves, and the family was scattered as the children were sold to different owners. After the Civil War, the McLeods managed to reassemble their family and eventually bought five acres of land near Mayesville, where they made a living growing cotton and corn.

McLeod began working in the fields at an early age. She did not attend school because there were no schools for black children nearby. When Bethune was nine years old, however, the missionary board of the Presbyterian Church opened a one-room school for African-American children in Sumter County, about four miles from the family farm, and Bethune was invited to attend. She studied there for four years, and then won a scholarship to attend Scotia Seminary for girls (now Barber-Scotia College) in Concord, North Carolina, where she studied for the next five years. Wishing to become a missionary in Africa and supported by another scholarship, Bethune enrolled in 1894 in the Bible Institute for Home and Foreign Missions (now the Moody Bible Institute) in Chicago. After two years of training she applied to the Presbyterian Mission Board for a position in Africa, but was devastated to discover that the board would not send black missionaries to Africa.

Bethune returned to the South and taught for a brief time at her former elementary school in Sumter County. In 1897 she was appointed to a teaching post at Haines Normal and Industrial Institute in Augusta, Georgia. The school's founder was the pioneering black educator Lucy Craft Laney. Laney's determination, intelligence, and spirit of service greatly impressed Bethune and provided an early model for much of her later work as an educator and missionary. After one year at Haines, Bethune was transferred to the Kindell Institute in Sumter, South Carolina, where, in 1898, she met and married Albertus Bethune and moved with him to Savannah. Their son, Albert, was born the following year.

In 1899 Bethune moved with her husband and infant son to Palatka, Florida, where she established a Presbyterian mission school. The Bethunes remained in Palatka for five years, and then moved further south to Daytona Beach, where Mary felt that her services as a teacher and a missionary were greatly needed. In October 1904 she rented a small house for eleven dollars a month, made benches and desks out of discarded crates, obtained other supplies through charity and resourcefulness, and enrolled five young students in the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls. Bethune taught them reading, writing, and mathematics, along with religious, vocational, and home economics training.

The Daytona Institute struggled in the beginning, with Bethune selling baked goods and ice cream to raise funds. The school grew quickly, however, and within two years had more than two hundred students and a staff of five. In 1907 the institute was able to relocate to a larger, permanent facility, and in 1910 Bethune bought land to be used for agricultural instruction and the cultivation of food crops for the student cafeteria. Bethune was a talented and tireless fundraiser who solicited donations from individuals, churches, and clubs, and later from prominent business leaders and philanthropists. Over the next decade, the school expanded steadily: taking in more students, increasing its academic offerings, constructing more school buildings, and gradually gaining a national reputation. By 1922, Bethune's school had an enrollment of more than 300 girls and a faculty of 22. The Daytona Institute became coeducational in 1923 when it merged with the Cookman Institute in nearby Jacksonville. By 1929 it was known as Bethune-Cookman College, with Bethune herself serving as president until 1942. In 1941, Bethune-Cookman began awarding bachelor's degrees as a fully accredited college.

During her lengthy career as an educator and activist Bethune served in a variety of increasingly important positions. Notable among her many accomplishments was the founding in 1920 of the Southeastern Association of Colored Women and in 1935 of the National Council of Negro Women. She also served as president of the National Association of Colored Women from 1924 to 1928, took part in Calvin Coolidge's Child Welfare Conference in 1928, and participated in Herbert Hoover's 1930 White House Conference on Child Health. During the Great Depression, Bethune served as special adviser on minority affairs to Franklin D. Roosevelt, and she became the first African-American woman to head a federal agency when Roosevelt appointed her director of the Division of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration in 1936, a position she held until 1943. During the 1940s, Bethune was also a member of the council that selected the first female officers for America's new Women's Army Auxiliary Corps. In 1945 Bethune served with W. E.B. Du Bois and Walter White as an adviser on interracial affairs during the charter conference of the United Nations.

Before she died, Bethune wrote a "Last Will and Testament" that was published posthumously in August, 1955, in Ebony. In her will, Bethune bequethed to subsequent generations her thirst for education, her sense of responsibility to young people, and her spirit of service.

See also: Higher Education in the United States, subentry on Historical Development; Multicultural Education.


Bethune, Mary McLeod. 1999. Mary McLeod Bethune: Building a Better World, Essays and Selected Documents, ed. Audrey Thomas McCluskey and Elaine M. Smith. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Flemming, Sheila Y. 1995. Bethune-Cookman College, 19041994: The Answered Prayer to a Dream. Virginia Beach, VA: Donning.

Holt, Rackham. 1964. Mary McLeod Bethune: A Biography. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Judith J. Culligan

Bethune, Mary Mcleod

views updated May 18 2018

Mary Mc Leod Bethune

Born: July 10, 1875
Mayesville, South Carolina
Died: May 18, 1955
Daytona Beach, Florida

African American educator

Mary McLeod Bethune, an African American teacher, was one of the great educators in United States history. She was a leader of women, an adviser to several American presidents, and a powerful champion of equality among races.

Early life and education

Mary McLeod was born in Mayesville, South Carolina. Her parents, Samuel and Patsy McLeod, were former slaves, as were most of her brothers and sisters. (Mary was the fifteenth of seventeen children.) After her parents were freed, they saved up and bought a small farm of their own. Mary helped her parents on the family farm. When she was eleven years old, she entered a school established by a missionary from the Presbyterian Church. She walked five miles to and from school each day, then spent her evenings teaching everything she had learned to the rest of her family.

Later Mary received a scholarship to attend Scotia Seminary, a school for African American girls in Concord, North Carolina. She was strongly influenced by both white and black teachers there and met some of the people with whom she would work closely later. Although she was very serious about her studies, this did not prevent her from becoming a lively dancer and developing a lasting love of music. Dynamic and alert, she was very popular. Her classmates looked to her as a leader. After graduating in 1893 she attended the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois.

Career as an educator

After graduation from the Moody Bible Institute, Mary wished to become a missionary in Africa. However, she was told that African Americans were not allowed to take positions like that. She became an instructor at the Presbyterian Mission School in Mayesville in 1896 and later at Haines Institute in Augusta, Georgia, in 1896 and 1897. While she was working at Kindell Institute in Sumpter, South Carolina, in 1897 and 1898, she met Albertus Bethune, whom she later married and had a son with. Her devotion to the education of African American children caused problems with the marriage, however, and the couple eventually separated.

In 1904 the construction of the Florida East Coast Railroad brought hundreds of African Americans to the area looking for work. Bethune saw a need for education to improve the lives of these people. She began her career as an educator in earnest when she rented a two-story house in Daytona Beach, Florida, and began the difficult task of establishing a school for African American girls. Thus, in an era when most African American children received little or no education, the Daytona Literary and Industrial School for Training Negro Girls was begun in October 1904, with six pupils (five girls and her own son). There was no equipmentcrates were used for desks, charcoal took the place of pencils, and ink came from crushed berries.

At first Bethune did everything herselfteaching, administrative duties, handling the money, and keeping the school clean. She also searched garbage dumps for items that the school could restore and use, such as furniture and pieces of wood. Later she was able to secure a staff, many of whom worked loyally for her for many years. To help pay for expansion of the school, Bethune and her pupils baked pies and made ice cream to sell to nearby construction workers. In addition to her regular classes, Bethune organized classes for the children of turpentine workers. In these ways she satisfied her desire to serve as a missionary.

As the school at Daytona grew, it needed more money to run successfully. Bethune began to seek donations from anywhere she could. In 1912 she interested James M. Gamble of the Procter and Gamble Company of Cincinnati, Ohio, who contributed to the school and served as chairman of its board of trustees until his death. In 1923 Bethune's school for girls merged with Cookman Institute of Jacksonville, Florida, a school for boys. The new school became known as Bethune-Cookman Collegiate Institute, soon renamed Bethune-Cookman College. Bethune served as president of the college until her retirement in 1942. She remained a trustee of the college to the end of her life. By 1955 the college had a faculty (teachers and administrative staff) of one hundred and a student enrollment of over one thousand.

Other activities

Bethune's business activities were confined to the Central Life Insurance Company of Tampa, Florida, of which she was president for several years; the Afro-American Life Insurance Company of Jacksonville, which she served as director; and the Bethune-Volusia Beach Corporation, a recreation area and housing development she founded in 1940. In addition she wrote numerous magazine and newspaper articles and contributed chapters to several books. In 1932 she founded and organized the National Council of Negro Women and became its president. By 1955 the organization had a membership of eight hundred thousand.

Bethune also gained national recognition in 1936, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt (18821945) appointed her director of African American affairs in the National Youth Administration and a special adviser on minority affairs. She served for eight years and supervised the development of employment opportunities and recreational facilities for African American youth throughout the United States. She also served as special assistant to the secretary of war during World War II (193945). In the course of her government assignments she became a close friend of Eleanor Roosevelt (18841962). During her long career Bethune received many honorary (received without fulfilling the usual requirements) degrees and awards, including the Haitian Medal of Honor and Merit (1949), the highest award of the Haitian government. Mary McLeod Bethune died in Daytona Beach on May 18, 1955, of a heart attack. She was buried on the campus of Bethune-Cookman College.

For More Information

Halasa, Malu. Mary McLeod Bethune. New York: Chelsea House, 1989.

Poole, Bernice Anderson. Mary McLeod Bethune. Los Angeles: Melrose Square, 1994.

Bethune, Mary Mcleod

views updated Jun 11 2018

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.


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 three 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.


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.


Holt, Rackham. 1964. Mary McLeod Bethune: A Biography. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Long, Nancy Ann Zrinyi. 2004. The Life and Legacy of Mary McLeod Bethune. Cocoa Beach: Florida Historical Press.

Love, Carroll, ed. “Mary Jane McLeod Bethune.” 1984. In Salute to Historic Black Women. Chicago: Empak Publishing.

Reagon, Berinice. 1980. “Bethune, Mary Jane McLeod.” In Dictionary of American Negro Biography, 41–43. New York: Norton.

Sterne, Emma Gelders. 1957. Mary McLeod Bethune. Illustrated by Raymond Lufkin. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Russell Mootry Jr.

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