The notable achievements of educator and civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune (pictured) stand tall, especially when one considers the incredible odds she faced as a child of former slaves and the hurdles she overcame despite oppressive segregation and racism. She was born Mary Jane McLeod on this date in 1875 in Mayesville, South Carolina, and was the lone child of her 17 siblings to be born free. She began her life picking cotton along with her family, working in the fields for long hours.
As recalled by McLeod Bethune much later in an interview, she accompanied her mother on a laundry delivery to a White family. When she entered the children’s nursery, she would open a book and one of the White children reportedly snatched the book, telling her to “put that down…you can’t read.”
She would credit that moment as pivotal in sparking a change within her.
Watch Mary McLeod Bethune’s story here:
As chance would have it, a Black missionary visited the home of the McLeods who was starting a school called “Trinity Mission.” Money was scarce and only one of the children could go. Mary Jane was chosen. She would walk five miles back and forth, finishing her schoolwork by candlelight. She graciously taught what she learned to her family during their free time.
Her scholastic endeavors were nearly derailed after the family’s mule died and money grew scarce. She would temporarily abandon her studies to help on the land, but a benevolent dressmaker in Denver would offer a scholarship for one student to continue studying.
Again, Mary Jane was selected and was sent to the Scotia Seminary for Girls in Concord, North Carolina.
After graduating from the school, she had aims of becoming a missionary in Africa but instead headed to Chicago to study at the Moody Bible Institute on a scholarship. Graduating in 1895, she would return to the South and taught in several mission schools much like the one she attended. She married in 1898 to fellow teacher Albertus Bethune and bore one son. The couple separated in 1907.
In 1904, Bethune rented a small house in Daytona, Fla., and subsequently began the Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls. The school began on a small scale, with five girls and her son, Albert, making up the student body.
The school was resourceful, and with the help of the parents and church members, Bethune would raise funds in a variety of ways, including bake sales and fish fry events. They even went to local businesses for furniture donations.
Bethune would also reach out to powerful rich Whites, such as James Gamble (of Proctor & Gamble) among others, to join her school’s board. By 1910, the school’s enrollment expanded to 102 students, and 10 years later, the number of attendees leaped to 351.
Higher education courses were added to the school’s Christian-based curriculum and Bethune would rename the school the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute. After having difficulty staffing the school, she would add classes to help train new teachers.
The school would merge with the Cookman Institute for Men out of Jacksonville in 1923, eventually becoming Bethune-Cookman College, the first fully accredited Black institution of higher learning in Florida. Bethune served as president of the school, stepping down from her post in 1942.
It was also during this time Bethune would found the National Council of Negro Women in 1935. A year later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed her as the director of the division of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration, becoming an unofficial member of the Cabinet; Roosevelt routinely went to Bethune for advice on minority affairs.
Bethune was a celebrated public figure, and because of that, she drew negative attention from hate groups such as the Klu Klux Klan. She was also criticized by Black educators who felt she placed far too much value on vocational studies versus headier intellectual pursuits. Consequently, she had a small rivalry with activist Ida B. Wells who felt Bethune limited the potential of students.
Yet through all the controversy and criticism, none could deny that Bethune’s achievements were not only noteworthy, but necessary.
She was a respected figure even up until her death in 1955, inspiring former critic Eleanor Roosevelt to pen a column in memoriam to Bethune. In 1974 on this date, Bethune was honored with a sculpture, which was unveiled on the U.S. Capitol grounds and eventually erected in Washington’s historic Lincoln Park.
As we recognize Mary McLeod Bethune on her birthday, we salute and celebrate her lasting and inspirational legacy.