Mary McLeod Bethune

An Amazing African-American Educator and Civil Rights Activist

Educator and civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune with her son.
Educator and Civil Rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune and her son, Albert Bethune Jr, posing at Metropolitan AME Church. (February 12, 1940). (Photo by Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images)

Known as the "First Lady of the Struggle," Mary McLeod Bethune was a trailblazing African-American educator and civil rights leader. Bethune, who strongly believed that education was the key to equal rights, founded the groundbreaking Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute (now known as the Bethune-Cookman College) in 1904.

Passionate about both women’s rights and civil rights, Bethune served as president of the National Association of Colored Women and founded the National Council of Negro Women. Also, in an era when blacks were generally banned from positions of authority, Bethune was president of a university, opened a hospital, was CEO of a company, advised four U.S. presidents, and was chosen to attend the founding convention of the United Nations.

Dates: July 10, 1875 -- May 18, 1955

Also Known As: Mary Jane

Born Free

Mary Jane McLeod was born on July 10, 1875 in rural Mayesville, South Carolina. Unlike her parents, Samuel and Patsy McLeod, Mary, who was the 15th of 17 children, was born free.

For many years after the end of slavery, Mary's family continued to work as sharecroppers on the plantation of former master William McLeod until they could afford to build a farm. Finally, the family had enough money to erect a log cabin on a small plot of farmland they called Homestead.

Despite their freedom, Patsy still did laundry for her former owner and Mary often accompanied her mother to deliver the wash. Mary loved going because she was allowed to play with the toys of the owner's grandchildren.

On one particular visit, Mary picked up a book only to have it ripped from her hands by a white child, who screamed that Mary wasn't supposed to read. Later in life, Mary said the experience inspired her to learn to read and write.

Early Education

At a young age, Mary was working up to ten hours a day, often while out in the fields picking cotton. When Mary was seven, a black Presbyterian missionary named Emma Wilson visited Homestead. She asked Samuel and Patsy if their children could attend the school she was establishing.

The parents could afford to send only one child, and Mary was chosen to become the first member of her family to attend school. This opportunity would change Mary’s life.

Eager to learn, Mary walked ten miles a day to attend the one-room Trinity Mission School. If there was time after chores, Mary taught her family whatever she had learned that day.

Mary studied at the mission school for four years and graduated at the age of eleven. With her studies completed and no means to further her education, Mary returned to her family's farm to work in the cotton fields.

A Golden Opportunity

Still working a year after graduation, Mary fretted about missing additional educational opportunities – a dream that now seemed hopeless. Ever since the McLeod family's only mule had died, which had forced Mary's father to mortgage Homestead to buy another mule, money in the McLeod household had been even scarcer than before.

Luckily for Mary, a Quaker teacher in Denver, Colorado named Mary Chrisman had read about the blacks-only Mayesville school. As a sponsor of the Northern Presbyterian Church's project to educate former slave children, Chrisman offered to pay tuition for one student to receive a higher education – Mary was chosen.

In 1888, 13-year-old Mary traveled to Concord, North Carolina to attend the Scotia Seminary for Negro Girls. When she arrived at Scotia, Mary stepped into a world in sharp contrast to her Southern upbringing, with white teachers sitting, talking, and eating with black teachers. At Scotia, Mary learned that through cooperation, whites and blacks could live in harmony.

Studies to Be a Missionary

Study of the Bible, American history, literature, Greek, and Latin filled Mary's days. In 1890, the 15-year-old completed the Normal and Scientific Course, which certified her to teach. However, the course was the equivalent of today's Associates degree and Mary wanted more education.

Mary continued learning at the Scotia Seminary. Lacking money to travel home during summer vacations, the principal of Scotia found her jobs as a domestic with white families for a little money, which she sent to her parents. Mary graduated from Scotia Seminary in July 1894, but her parents, unable to get enough money together for the trip, did not attend the graduation.

Shortly after graduation, Mary boarded a train in July 1894 with a scholarship to the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois, again thanks to Mary Chrisman. Though she was the only black out of a thousand students, Mary was able to conform because of her Scotia experience.

Mary took courses that would help her qualify for missionary work in Africa and worked in Chicago's slums feeding the hungry, assisting the homeless with shelter, and visiting prisons.

Mary graduated from Moody in 1895 and immediately went to New York to meet with the Presbyterian Church's mission board. The 19-year-old was devastated when she was told “coloreds” could not qualify as African missionaries.

Finding Another Way – Becoming a Teacher

With no options, Mary went home to Mayesville and worked as an assistant to her old teacher, Emma Wilson. In 1896, Mary moved to Augusta, Georgia for an eighth-grade teaching job at the Haines Normal and Industrial Institute. (Lucy Craft Laney had organized this school for black kids in 1895, teaching academics, self-respect, and good hygiene.)

The school was located in an impoverished area, and Mary came to realize that her missionary work was most needed in America, not Africa. She began to seriously consider founding her own school.

In 1898, the Presbyterian board sent Mary to Sumter, Carolina's Kindell Institute. A gifted singer, Mary joined the choir of the area's Presbyterian Church and met teacher Albertus Bethune at a rehearsal. The two started courting and in May 1898, 23-year-old Mary married Albertus and moved to Savannah, Georgia. 

Mary and her husband found teaching positions, but she stopped teaching when she became pregnant, and he began selling menswear. Mary gave birth to son Albertus McLeod Bethune, Jr. in February 1899.

Later that year, a Presbyterian minister convinced Mary to accept a mission-school teaching position in Palatka, Florida. The family lived there five years, and Mary began selling insurance policies for Afro-American Life. (In 1923, Mary founded Tampa's Central Life Insurance, becoming its CEO in 1952.) 

Plans were announced in 1904 to build a railroad in northern Florida. Aside from the project creating jobs, Mary saw an opportunity to open a school for migrant families -- envisioning funds coming from Daytona Beach's wealthy.

Mary and her family headed to Daytona and rented a run-down cottage for $11 monthly. But the Bethunes had arrived in a city where blacks were lynched every week. Their new home was in the poorest neighborhood, but it was here that Mary wanted to establish her school for black girls.

Opening Her Own School

On October 4, 1904, 29-year-old Mary McLeod Bethune opened the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute with only $1.50 and five 8 to 12-year-old girls, and her son. Each child paid fifty cents a week for a uniform and to receive rigorous training in religion, business, academics, and industrial skills. 

Bethune often lectured to raise funds for her school and recruit students, emphasizing education to achieve self-sufficiency. But Jim Crow was law and the KKK was again raging. Lynching was common. Bethune received a visit from the Klan over the formation of her school. Tall and hefty, Bethune stood resolutely in the doorway, and the Klan left without causing harm.

Many black women were impressed once they heard Bethune speak of education's importance; they too wanted to learn. To teach adults, Bethune provided evening classes, and by 1906, Bethune's school boasted a 250-student enrollment. She bought the adjacent building to accommodate expansion.

However, Mary McLeod Bethune's husband Albertus never shared her vision for the school. The two could not reconcile on this point, and Albertus ended the marriage in 1907 to return to South Carolina, where he died in 1919 of tuberculosis.

Help From the Rich and Powerful

Mary McLeod Bethune's goal was to create a top-rated school, where students would acquire requisite skills that prepared them for life. She started agricultural training for students to grow and sell their own food.

Accepting everyone who wanted education caused major overcrowding; however, Bethune was determined to keep her school afloat. She purchased more property from a dumpsite's owner for $250, paying $5 a month. Students hauled junk away from the place they named “Hell's Hole.”

Bethune swallowed her pride and sacrificed a hot temper to endure many affronts to her dignity by soliciting aid from rich whites. Tenacity paid off, however, when James Gamble (of Proctor and Gamble) paid to build a brick schoolhouse. In October 1907, Mary moved her school to the four-story building she named “Faith Hall.”

People were often moved to give due to Bethune's powerful speaking and passion for black education. Specifically, the owner of White Sewing Machines made a large donation to build a new hall and included Bethune in his will.

In 1909, Bethune went to New York and was introduced to Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, and Guggenheim. Rockefeller created a scholarship program for Mary through his foundation.

Angry at the absence of healthcare for blacks in Daytona, Bethune built her own 20-bed hospital on campus. The consummate fundraiser hosted a bazaar, raising $5,000. Famed industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie gave. Bethune's mother died in 1911, the year the Pasty McLeod Hospital opened.

Now Bethune focused on acquiring accreditation as a college. Her proposal was rejected by the all-white board, who believed an elementary education was sufficient for blacks. Bethune again sought the help of powerful allies, and in 1913 the board approved junior-college accreditation.

A Merger

Bethune maintained her "Head, Hands, and Heart" teaching philosophy and the overcrowded school kept growing. To expand, 45-year-old Bethune hopped on her bike, going door-to-door soliciting contributions and selling sweet potato pies. She mastered negotiating with whites, appealing to their common —once receiving $80,000 from one sympathetic contributor.

However, the 20-acre campus still struggled financially, and in 1923 Mary merged with the Cookman Institute for Men in Jacksonville, Florida, which doubled student enrollment to 600. The school became the Bethune-Cookman College in 1929, where Mary served until 1942 as the first black female college president.

A Champion of Women’s Rights

Bethune believed that raising the status of African-American women was key to elevating the race; thus, beginning in 1917, Mary formed clubs championing the causes of black women. The Florida Federation of Colored Women and the Southeastern Federal of Colored Women addressed important topics of the era.

A constitutional amendment granted black women voting rights in 1920, and overjoyed Bethune got busy organizing a voter registration drive. This roused the ire of Klansmen, who threatened her with violence. Bethune urged calmness and courage, leading the women in exercising their hard-won privilege.

In 1924, Mary McLeod Bethune defeated Ida B. Wells, with whom she had a contentious relationship over teaching methodologies, becoming president of the 10,000-strong National Association of Colored Women (NACW). Bethune traveled often, singing and speaking to raise money, not only for her college, but also to move NACW’s headquarters to Washington, DC.

Mary founded in 1935 the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW). The organization sought to address discrimination, thereby improving every facet of African-American life.

Advisor to Presidents

Mary McLeod Bethune’s successes had not gone unnoticed. When she returned to her school in October 1927 from a European vacation, Bethune attended a brunch at the home of New York's governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt. This began a lifelong friendship between Bethune and the governor's wife, Eleanor Roosevelt.

A year later, it was U.S. President Calvin Coolidge who wanted Bethune’s advice. Soon followed by Herbert Hoover (1929-1933), who sought Bethune's thoughts on racial affairs and appointed her to various committees.

In October 1929, America's stock market crashed, and black men were the first fired. Black women became primary bread winners, working in jobs of servitude. The Great Depression increased racial hostility but Bethune ignored established mores by frequently speaking out. Bethune’s outspokenness caused journalist Ida Tarbell to deem her #10 of America's most influential women in 1930.

When Franklin Roosevelt became president (1933-1944), he created several programs for blacks and appointed Bethune as the Advisor of Minority Affairs. In June 1936, Bethune became the first black woman to head a federal office as director of the Division of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Association (NYA).

In 1942, Bethune assisted the war secretary during World War II in creating the Women's Army Corps (WAC), lobbying for black women military officers. From 1935 to 1944, Bethune advocated passionately for African Americans to receive equal consideration under the New Deal. Bethune also assembled a black think-tank for weekly strategy meetings in her home.

On October 24, 1945, President Harry Truman chose Bethune to attend the United Nation's founding convention. Bethune was the only black, female delegate – it was the highlight of her life.

Mary McLeod Bethune's Death and Legacy

Failing health forced Bethune into retirement from government service. She went home, maintaining only certain club affiliations, writing books and articles.

Knowing death was near, Mary penned "My Last Will and Testament," in which she bequeathed the principles of her life's mission— but ultimately summed her life's achievements. The Will read, "I leave you love. I leave you hope. I leave you a thirst for education. I leave you racial dignity, a desire to live harmoniously—and a responsibility to our young people."

On May 18, 1955, 79-year-old Mary McLeod Bethune died of a heart attack and was buried on the grounds of her beloved school. A simple marker reads, "Mother."

In 1974, a sculpture of Bethune teaching children was erected in Washington DC's Lincoln Park, making her the first African American to receive such an honor. The United States Postal Service issued a stamp commemorating Bethune in 1985.

Against all odds, Mary McLeod Bethune greatly improved the lives of African Americans through education, political involvement, and economic enablement. Today, Bethune's legacy thrives in the college that bears her name.