Mary McLeod Bethune

From New World Encyclopedia

Mary McLeod Bethune
Mary McLeod Bethune, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, April 6, 1949
BornJuly 10 1875(1875-07-10)
Flag of United States Mayesville, South Carolina, U.S.
DiedMay 18 1955
Flag of United States Daytona Beach, Florida, U.S.
OccupationEducator, Author, and Civil Rights Leader

Mary Jane McLeod Bethune (July 10, 1875 - May 18, 1955) was a tireless educator and civil rights activist born to former slaves in Mayesville, South Carolina. She is best known for founding a school, in 1904, that later became part of Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Florida, becoming one of the first women in the world to serve as college president. Bethune was also a member of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Black Cabinet, and in June of 1936, she was assigned director of the Division of Negro Affairs and became the first black woman to serve as head of a federal agency.

She held many leadership positions in organizations for women and even though she was once hailed as the most influential Black woman in the United States, she has received little scholarly attention in the histories of the period. As a stateswoman, politician, educational leader, and visionary, she devoted her life to improving lives through education and political and economic empowerment.

Upon her death, newspaper columnist Louis E. Martin of the Memphis, Tennessee Tri Star Defender said, "She gave out faith and hope as if they were pills and she some sort of doctor."[1]

Early life

The cabin in Mayesville, South Carolina where Mary Jane McLeod was born.

Mary Jane McLeod was the fifteenth of seventeen children to Samuel and Patsy MacIntosh McLeod on a South Carolina rice and cotton farm. McLeod attended Mayesville's one-room schoolhouse, Trinity Mission School, that was run by the Presbyterian Board of Missions of Freedmen, where her teacher, Emma Jane Wilson, became a significant mentor in her life.[2] Having attended Scotia Seminary (now Barber-Scotia College) in Concord, North Carolina, Wilson arranged for McLeod to attend the same school on a scholarship, which she did From 1888-1894. Bethune then attended Dwight Moody's Institute for Home and Foreign Missions in Chicago (now the Moody Bible Institute), hoping to become a missionary in Africa. However, she was told that black missionaries were not needed, and so she instead planned to teach.[3] Bethune married Albertus Bethune in 1898, and they subsequently lived in Savannah, Georgia, for a year while she did some social work. She was persuaded by a visiting preacher named C.J. Uggins to relocate to Palatka, Florida, to run a mission school.[4] She did so in 1899, and began an outreach to prisoners along with running the mission school and supplementing her income by selling life insurance.[5] Bethune's relationship with Albertus did not work out and the two separated in 1907.[6]

Career as an educator

Mary McLeod Bethune with girls from the Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls in Daytona, circa 1905.

In 1904, Bethune used $1.50 to start the Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls in Daytona. She had five students—four girls aged six to twelve, and her son, Albert.

Curriculum at the school started as a rigorous Christian life, having girls rise at 5:30 a.m. for Bible Study, classes in home economics, and other industrial skills such as dressmaking, millinery, cooking, and other crafts that emphasized a life of self-sufficiency. Students' days ended at 9 p.m. Soon, science and business courses were added, then high school courses of math, English, and foreign languages.[7]

Group photo of students at the Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls, taken about 1919.

In 1910, the enrollment of the school rose to 102, most of them being boarders.[8] The success of the school was measured in its growing enrollment, addition of higher education courses, and the value of the school reaching $100,000 by 1920, with an enrollment of 351 students.[9] Bethune renamed the school The Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute and included courses to prepare teachers because she was finding it difficult to staff the school. The school merged with the Cookman Institute for Men from Jacksonville, Florida, and became co-educational in 1923, allowing the value of the school's now eight buildings to be reassessed at $250,000.

Bethune constantly found it necessary to search for more funding—almost everywhere she went in her travels she sought money for the school. A donation by John D. Rockefeller in 1905, of $62,000 helped, as did her friendship with the Roosevelts. Through the Great Depression, the school was able to function meeting the educational standards of the State of Florida. From 1936-1942, she served only part-time as president of the college as she had duties in Washington, D.C., and the lower funding reflected her absence.[10] By 1942, Bethune was forced to give up the presidency of the school, as it had begun to affect her health.

Career as a public leader

National Association of Colored Women

In 1896, the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) was formed to promote the needs of black women. Bethune served as the Florida chapter president of the NACW from 1917-1925 and made it a mission to register as many black voters as possible, which prompted several visits from the Ku Klux Klan.[11] Bethune served as the president of the Southeastern Federation of Colored Women's Clubs from 1920-1925, an organization that served to amplify black women's voices for better opportunities. Her presence in the organization earned her the NACW national presidency in 1924. Despite the NACW being underfunded, Bethune's vision of the organization having a headquarters with a professional executive secretary came to fruition under her leadership when the organization purchased a Washington, DC, property at 1318 Vermont Avenue (with half the mortgage paid). Just prior to her leaving the presidency of the NACW, she saw it become the first black-controlled organization represented in Washington, DC.

National Council of Negro Women

Mary McLeod Bethune enters the White House c. 1950.

Bethune founded the National Council of Negro Women in New York City, in 1935, bringing together 28 different organizations to form a council to facilitate the improvement of the quality of life for women and their communities. Bethune, speaking about the organization said: "It is our pledge to make a lasting contribution to all that is finest and best in America, to cherish and enrich her heritage of freedom and progress by working for the integration of all her people regardless of race, creed, or national origin, into her spiritual, social, cultural, civic, and economic life, and thus aid her to achieve the glorious destiny of a true and unfettered democracy."[12] In 1938, the NCNW hosted the White House Conference on Negro Women and Children, significantly displaying the presence of black women in democratic roles. They claimed their biggest impact came in getting black women into military officer roles in the Women's Army Corps during World War II.[13]

National Youth Administration

The National Youth Administration (NYA) was a federal agency created in 1935, to help youth aged 16-24 with unemployment and limited opportunities during the Great Depression. Bethune lobbied the organization so aggressively and effectively for minority involvement that she earned herself a full-time staff position in 1936, as an assistant. Within two years, the agency upgraded her role to Director of Negro Affairs. She was the only black agent responsible for releasing NYA funds to help black students through school based programs. Bethune made sure that black colleges participated in the Civilian Pilot Training Program, which graduated some of the first black pilots.[14] Awed by her accomplishments, the director of the NYA, said in 1939, of Bethune, "No one can do what Mrs. Bethune can do."[15]

Black Cabinet

Bethune played a dual role as close and loyal friend of Eleanor and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. She took it upon herself to disperse the message of the Democratic Party to black voters, and make the concerns of black people known to the Roosevelts at the same time. She had unprecedented access to the White House through her relationship with the First Lady, which helped her form the coalition of leaders from black organizations called the Federal Council on Negro Affairs, popularly known as the Black Cabinet.[16]

The group, which advised the Roosevelt administration on issues facing black people, gathered in Bethune's office or apartment and met informally, rarely keeping minutes. Although as advisers they had little role in creating public policy, they were able to influence political appointments and disbursement of funds to organizations that would benefit black people.[17]

Civil rights

Bethune dedicated her life to the education of both whites and blacks about the accomplishments and needs of black people, writing in 1938, "If our people are to fight their way up out of bondage we must arm them with the sword and the shield and buckler of pride—belief in themselves and their possibilities, based upon a sure knowledge of the achievements of the past."[18] and a year later, "Not only the Negro child but children of all races should read and know of the achievements, accomplishments and deeds of the Negro. World peace and brotherhood are based on a common understanding of the contributions and cultures of all races and creeds.[19]

One of her most effective methods of reaching this goal was to open her school on Sundays to tourists in Daytona Beach, showing off the accomplishments of her students, hosting national speakers on black issues, and taking donations. These Community Meetings were deliberately integrated. One black teenager in Daytona at the turn of the twentieth century remembers that as the most impressive aspect: "Many tourists attended, sitting wherever there were empty seats. There was no special section for white people."[20]

On the turnover of Plessy v Ferguson by the U.S. Supreme Court, Bethune took the opportunity to defend the decision by writing her opinion in the Chicago Defender in 1954:

There can be no divided democracy, no class government, no half-free county, under the constitution. Therefore, there can be no discrimination, no segregation, no separation of some citizens from the rights which belong to all… We are on our way. But these are frontiers which we must conquer… We must gain full equality in education …in the franchise… in economic opportunity, and full equality in the abundance of life.

Business woman

Known for her reputation as an educator, public figure in government, and black women's club activist, Bethune was also a business woman. She held a one-fourth interest in the Welricha Motel, a resort purchased in 1943, to provide recreational facilities for black Daytonans.

Bethune also held capital stock in the Afro-American Life Insurance Company of Jacksonville and the Central Life Insurance Company of Tampa. Her association with the latter company began in 1923, when thirteen men, led by Tampa realtor and mortician Garfield D. Rodgers, offered Bethune the opportunity to join them in the insurance business. She held capital stock in the Pittsburgh Courier too.

In addition to these ventures, Bethune invested in real estate mainly in the neighborhood of the school. The revenue from these investments enabled her to have a comfortable life for herself and her son and grandson. Also, Bethune used extra earnings from selling insurance to pay off the mortgage on the "Homestead" in Maysville, and bought a modern home for her parents.[21]

Ambassador for peace

Bethune was also involved in the postwar "planning for peace." On April 25, 1945, W.E.B. DuBois, then sociologist at Atlanta University, Walter White of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Bethune were sent to San Francisco by President Harry S. Truman as consultants to the organizing meeting of the United Nations. Disappointed with the results of the meeting, Bethune issued a statement that: "San Francisco is not building the promised land of brotherhood and security and opportunity and peace. It is building a bridge to get there by. We still have a long way to go."

Bethune was invited by President Dumarsais Estime of the Republic of Haiti to celebrate the 1949 Haitian Exposition and became the first woman to be given the Medal of Honor and Merit, Haiti's highest award. She was also asked by President Truman to represent the nation at the inauguration of President William V.S. Tubman of Liberia in 1949. She was awarded one of Liberia's most prestigious awards—the Commander of the Order of the Star of Africa. Caux, Switzerland, was Bethune's last overseas trip where in 1954, she attended the World Assembly for Moral Re-Armament, an organization which subscribed to the principles Bethune had lived by—"absolute honesty, absolute purity, absolute unselfishness, and absolute love."[22]


In 1973, Mary McLeod Bethune was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.[23]

In 1974, a sculpture was erected in her honor in Lincoln Park, Washington DC, by sculptor Robert Berks. It was the first statue depicting any woman in any park in the nation's capital. Engraved in the side is a passage from her Last Will and Testament:

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 a respect for the use of power. I leave you faith. I leave you racial dignity. I leave you a desire to live harmoniously with your fellow men. I leave you, finally, a responsibility to our young people.

In 1985, the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in her honor.[24]

In 1989, Ebony Magazine listed Mary McLeod Bethune on their list of 50 Most Important Figures in Black U.S. History, and again in 1999, was included as one of the 100 Most Fascinating Black Women of the 20th Century in the same publication.

In 2004, the National Park Service acquired Bethune's last residence, the Council House at 1317 Vermont Avenue: The headquarters for the NACW. It became the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site.

Second Avenue in Daytona Beach, Florida, where Bethune's original school was located, was renamed Mary McLeod Bethune Boulevard, and is where Bethune-Cookman University is located today.[25]

Schools are named in her honor in Los Angeles, Dallas, Moreno Valley, California, Minnesota, Atlanta, Folkston and College Park, Georgia, New Orleans, Rochester, New York, and Palm Beach, Ft. Lauderdale, and Jacksonville, Florida.


  1. Louis E. Martin, "Dope 'n' Data," Memphis Tri-State Defender, June 4, 1955.
  2. Mary McLeod Bethune, Mary McLeod Bethune: Building a Better World, Essays and Selected Documents, ed. Audrey Thomas McCluskey and Elaine M. Smith (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999). ISBN 0253336260.
  3. USCA, Mary McLeod Bethune. Retrieved November 23, 2007.
  4. "Mary McLeod Bethune." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History (Gale Group, 1999).
  5. USCA, Mary McLeod Bethune. Retrieved November 23, 2007.
  6. Elaine Smith, Mary McLeod Bethune Papers: The Bethune Cookman College Collection, 1922-1955 (University Publications of America, 1995).
  7. Audrey McCluskey, "We Specialize in the Wholly Impossible: Black Women School Founders," Signs, Winter 1997: 403-426.
  8. Elaine Smith, Mary McLeod Bethune Papers: The Bethune Cookman College Collection, 1922-1955 (University Publications of America, 1995).
  9. Mary McLeod Bethune, Mary McLeod Bethune: Building a Better World, Essays and Selected Documents, ed. Audrey Thomas McCluskey and Elaine M. Smith (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999).
  10. Elaine Smith, Mary McLeod Bethune Papers: The Bethune Cookman College Collection, 1922-1955 (University Publications of America, 1995).
  11. Ibid.
  12. National Council of Negro Women, History. Retrieved October 18, 2007.
  13. Elaine Smith, "Introduction." Mary McLeod Bethune Papers: The Bethune Cookman College Collection, 1922-1955 (University Publications of America, 1995).
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Elaine Smith, Mary McLeod Bethune Papers: The Bethune Cookman College Collection, 1922-1955 (University Publications of America, 1995).
  17. Nancy Weiss, Farewell to the Party of Lincoln: Black Politics in the Age of FDR (Princeton University Press, 1983).
  18. Mary Bethune, "Clarifying our Vision With the Facts," Journal of Negro History (1938), 10-15.
  19. Mary Bethune, "The Adaptation of the History of the Negro to the Capacity of the Child," Journal of Negro History (1939): 9-13.
  20. Elaine Smith, "Mary McLeod Bethune's 'Last Will and Testament': A Legacy for Race Vindication," Journal of Negro History. 8: 105-122.
  21., Founder of College. Retrieved November 14, 2007.
  22., Founder of College. Retrieved November 14, 2007.
  23., National Women's Hall of Fame. Retrieved October 18, 2007.
  24., Mary McLeod Bethune. Retrieved October 18, 2007.
  25. Elaine Smith, Mary McLeod Bethune Papers: The Bethune Cookman College Collection, 1922-1955 (University Publications of America, 1995).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bethune, Mary McLeod, Audrey T. McCluskey, and Elaine M. Smith. 1999. Mary McLeod Bethune: Building a Better World: Essays and Selected Documents. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. ISBN 0253336260.
  • Green, Lynne. 2006. Mary McLeod Bethune. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 9780618677368.
  • Holt, Rackham. 1964. Mary McLeod Bethune; a Biography. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
  • Miller, Susan Martins. 2006. Mary McLeod Bethune. Amazing Americans. Chicago: Wright Group/McGraw Hill. ISBN 1404533028.

External Links

All links retrieved November 7, 2022.


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