Mary McLeod Bethune was a revolutionary educator who not only provided her students with an academic education, but also with an education in life. She gave them the skills and confidence necessary to be successful, and she set standards for today’s historic black colleges. An educator not merely for her students, but for the entire world, she was the only woman of color at the founding meeting of the United Nations.
Mary McLeod was born on July 10, 1875 near Maysville, South Carolina. Her parents, Samuel and Patsy McLeod, were former slaves, and Mary was the last of seventeen children. She was the only McLeod child to be born in freedom. Her mother continued to work for her former owner, and together the family raised enough money to acquire five acres of land on which Bethune’s father grew cotton. From an early age, she worked in the fields with her parents and siblings. When she was nine years old, she was able to pick 250 pounds of cotton per day, an extraordinary amount for a child. Toiling under the hot Carolina sun, she developed a strong work ethic.
Patsy McLeod often took her youngest child along as she walked to pick up and delivery laundry to white people’s homes. Mary sometimes was allowed to play with these white children and their toys. It is said that in one such experience, she picked up a book, but a white child quickly took it away, saying that black children could not read. Indeed, teaching a black person to read had been illegal in Southern states prior to the Civil War, and South Carolina’s legislation doubtless did not bother to repeal the legislation after martial law, enforced by Union soldiers, ended in 1876.
Some white Northern women, however, continued to run independent schools after the federal occupation and its Freedman’s Bureau ended. When a school for black children opened nearby, the McLeod family only had enough money to send one child. Mary was chosen and began attending school. She walked five miles to and from school each day, and in their free time, she taught her parents and siblings what she had learned.
She quickly rose to the top of her class and her teacher, Emma Jane Wilson, recommended her to Scotia Seminary in North Carolina. Not yet in her teens, Mary McLeod never had seen a train before she took one to this boarding school. The McLeod family could not have afforded this but for the generosity of a young Quaker teacher in Colorado, who learned of Mary through an informal network of liberal teachers. Mary Chrissman supported Mary McLeod for the next fifty years, although the two did not meet in person for decades.
Mary McLeod graduated from Scotia in 1894 and went on Dwight Moody’s Institute for Home and Foreign Missions, which was located in Chicago, Illinois; as Moody Bible Institute, it long has been an influential center for Protestant evangelists. McLeod intended to follow the missionary path of other Moody students, but was saddened to discover that no church was willing to sponsor an African-American missionary to Africa.
She returned home, and again using the network of mostly white women who taught in mostly black schools, McLeod then moved on to the Haines Institute in Augusta, Georgia. There she worked with Lucy Craft Laney, adopting many of Laney’s ideas into her own educational philosophy. While teaching at the Kendell Institute in Sumpter, South Carolina, she met Albertus Bethune, a fellow teacher whom she married in 1898. On February 3, 1899, Bethune gave birth to her only child, Albertus McLeod Bethune, Jr.
They lived in the pinewoods around Palatka, Florida, where many African-Americans worked at tapping trees for turpentine. Here Mary McLeod Bethune secured a job with the Presbyterian church, and in an era when black people were excluded from most insurance companies, she also sold policies for the Afro-American Life Insurance Company. Although primarily an educator, Bethune retained her insurance interests for the rest of her life. Her marriage soon deteriorated, however, and in 1904, she left her husband. With a young son to support and only 29 years old, Mary McLeod Bethune opened the Daytona Beach Literary and Industrial School for Training Negro Girls.
She initially had just five students in a rented old house, but enrollment soon soared -- largely because of the area’s unique economy. The mothers of many students were maids who worked for wealthy families that wintered in Florida -- but in summer, when their employers moved north, these women had nowhere to leave their children. Bethune’s boarding school was an ideal solution, and the house soon was too small. They moved from there to what Bethune described as a “hell hole,” where she and her girls removed literally thousands of pounds of refuse in an old junkyard.
In addition to basic academics, she also taught practical skills such as laundry and cleaning techniques, broom making, and poultry care. Bethune placed a strong emphasis on values, especially self-respect and confidence, and her students wore uniforms so that there would be no disparity between those with parental support and those without it. She raised money with a variety of innovative ideas, and the school’s reputation grew so that she could raise as much as $5,000 with a single bazaar. Student musical performances in the area’s winter resorts were especially important fundraisers, and Bethune used the contacts that she made to recruit some of America’s richest people as trustees, including John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and James Gamble of Proctor & Gamble. Not everyone was supportive, however, and after Bethune urged Daytona blacks to register and vote, she had to withstand an attack by the Ku Klux Klan.
Over time, the school dropped its elementary curriculum, and in 1923, Bethune began making the transition to a college. The first step was co-education, accomplished by bringing the male student body of the Cookman Institute of nearby Jacksonville to Daytona. Renamed Bethune-Cookman College in 1929, it ended its high-school program in 1936 and issued its first college degrees in 1943. Bethune served as president even as she became increasingly a national and international figure.
Already during World War I, she had encouraged African Americans to participate in the Red Cross. In 1920, after women gained the vote, she led black women in using their new right. Perhaps more than any other person, she was key to the transition of blacks from the Republican Party – “the party of Lincoln” – to the Democratic Party and its New Deal during the Great Depression. Bethune became a close friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, and in 1936, Franklin Roosevelt appointed her as head of the National Youth Administration, a vocational education program aimed at minorities. For years into the future, this would remain the highest governmental position held by a black woman. She also served on the advisory board that created the Women’s Army Corps, and she saw that the corps was racially integrated from its 1942 beginning.
Her organizational positions followed the same busy chronology. In 1924, Bethune was elected as president of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, and in 1935, she became the founding president of the National Council of Negro Women. At other points, she was elected president of the National Association of Teachers in Colored Schools and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History; she also served on the boards of Planned Parenthood and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Despite all of these obligations, she regularly found time to write weekly columns for the era’s most important newspapers aimed at blacks, the Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago Defender.
In 1931, when racism remained routine, she was so obviously meritorious that Bethune ranked tenth on a journalists’ list of America’s most outstanding women. Her most important achievement arguably was the one that gave her an international audience, when President Harry Truman appointed her to the 1945 founding conference of the United Nations. No African nation or any other nation sent a black female delegate, and Mary McLeod Bethune represented all the world’s women of color. In 1949, she probably was the first black woman granted an honorary degree by a college for white women: Orlando’s Rollins College, a rather elite institution, awarded it six years prior to her death. Among many other honors, the U.S. Post office recognized Bethune by issuing a first-class stamp with her image in 1985.
Bethune was also a businesswoman. She invested in real estate, owned one fourth of a resort in Daytona, and was a founder of an insurance company. By 1952, all of the men who co-founded Central Life Insurance Company of Tampa with her in 1923 had died, and Bethune became president. At the time, she was the only woman in America, white or black, to hold this position.
The most outstanding international leader of black women from the 1920s to the 1950s, Mary McLeod Bethune died at 80. She is buried on the grounds of Bethune-Cookman College, which continues to educate many of the nation’s African-American leaders.
Mary McLeod Bethune Council House Museum
The National Council of Negro Women
PBS- Mary McLeod Bethune
Mary McLeod Bethune Speaks on Education (Sound Bite)/
White House for Kids-Mary McLeod Bethune
Greenfield, Eloise. Mary McLeod Bethune. New York, N.Y.: HarperCollins Publishers, 1977.
Holt, Rackham. Mary McLeod Bethune. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, 1964.
Martin, Earl Devine. Mary McLeod Bethune: Matriarch of Black America. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University, 1958.
McCluskey, Audrey Thomas, and Elaine M. Smith Eds. Mary McLeod Bethune: Building a Better World, Essays and Selected Documents. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1999.