Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955), an African American teacher, was one of the great educators of the United States. She was a leader of women, a distinguished adviser to several American presidents, and a powerful champion of racial equality.
Mary McLeod was born in Mayesville, S.C. Her parents, Samuel and Patsy McLeod, were former slaves; Mary was the fifteenth of 17 children. She helped her parents on the family farm and first entered a Presbyterian mission school when she was 11 years old. Later she attended Scotia Seminary, a school for African American girls in Concord, N.C., on a scholarship. She graduated in 1893; there she had met some of the people with whom she would work closely.
Though she had a serious turn of mind, it did not prevent her from being a lively dancer and developing a lasting fondness for music. Dynamic and alert, she was very popular and the acknowledged leader of her classmates. After graduating from Scotia Seminary, she attended the Moody Bible Institute.
Career as an Educator
After graduation from Moody Institute, she wished to become a missionary in Africa; however, she was unable to pursue this end. She was an instructor at the Presbyterian Mission School in Mayesville in 1896 and later an instructor at Haines Institute in Augusta, Ga., in 1896-1897. While she was an instructor at Kindell Institute in Sumpter, S.C., in 1897-1898, she met Albertus Bethune, whom she later married.
Bethune began her career as an educator in earnest when she rented a two-story frame building in Daytona Beach, Fla., and began the difficult task of establishing a school for African American girls. Her school opened in October 1904, with six pupils, five girls and her own son; there was no equipment; crates were used for desks and charcoal took the place of pencils; and ink came from crushed elderberries. Thus began the Daytona Literary and Industrial School for Training Negro Girls, in an era when most African American children received little or no education.
At first Bethune was teacher, administrator, comptroller, and custodian. Later she was able to secure a staff, many of whom worked loyally for many years. To finance and expand the school, Bethune and her pupils baked pies and made ice cream to sell to nearby construction gangs. 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 progressed, it became necessary to secure an adequate financial base. Bethune began to seek financial aid in earnest. In 1912 she interested James M. Gamble of the Proctor and Gamble Company of Cincinnati, Ohio, who contributed financially 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, Fla., a school for boys, and the new coeducational school became known as Bethune-Cookman Collegiate Institute, soon renamed Bethune-Cookman College. Bethune served as president of the college until her retirement as president emeritus in 1942. She remained a trustee of the college to the end of her life. By 1955 the college had a faculty of 100 and a student enrollment of over 1,000.
Bethune's business activities were confined to the Central Life Insurance Company of Tampa, Fla., 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 this organization had a membership of 800,000.
Bethune gained national recognition in 1936, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed her director of African American affairs in the National Youth Administration and a special adviser on minority affairs. She served for 8 years and supervised the expansion 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. In the course of her government assignments she became a close friend of Eleanor Roosevelt. During her long career Bethune received many honorary degrees and awards, including the Haitian Medal of Honor and Merit (1949), the highest award of the Haitian government.
Bethune died in Daytona Beach on May 18, 1955, of a heart attack. She was buried on the campus of Bethune-Cookman College.
Further Reading on Mary McLeod Bethune
The best biography of Mrs. Bethune is Rackham Holt, Mary McLeod Bethune (1964). See also Catherine Owens Peare, Mary McLeod Bethune (1951), and Emma Gelders Sterne, Mary McLeod Bethune (1957). Edwin R. Embree, 13 Against the Odds (1944), includes a chapter on Mrs. Bethune. Shorter accounts of her are in Russell L. Adams, Great Negroes: Past and Present (1963; 3d ed. 1969), and in Walter Christmas, ed., Negroes in Public Affairs and Government, vol. 1 (1966). Background studies include John Hope Franklin, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans (1947; 3d rev. ed. 1967), and Bernard Sternsher, ed., The Negro in Depression and War: Prelude to Revolution, 1930-1945 (1969), which contains a selection by Bethune.