Mary Mcleod Bethune (1875–1955)
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.
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, 1904–1994: 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
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