Biography of Mary McLeod Bethune, Civil Rights Activist

Mary McLeod Bethune with her son Albert

Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images

Mary McLeod Bethune (born Mary Jane McLeod; July 10, 1875–May 18, 1955) 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. She also opened a hospital, served as CEO of a company, advised four U.S. presidents, and was chosen to attend the founding convention of the United Nations.

Fast Facts: Mary McLeod Bethune

  • Known For: Bethune was an educator and activist who fought to improve the lives of African-Americans.
  • Also Known As: Mary Jane McLeod
  • Born: July 10, 1875 in Mayesville, South Carolina
  • Parents: Sam and Patsy McLeod
  • Died: May 18, 1955 in Daytona Beach, Florida
  • Spouse: Albertus Bethune (m. 1898–1918)
  • Children: Albert

Early Life

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. Eventually, 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 that this experience had inspired her to learn to read and write.

Early Education

At a young age, Mary was working up to 10 hours a day, often in the fields picking cotton. When she was 7, 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 10 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 11. 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, forcing 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—and 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 very different from 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

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 associate's degree, and Mary wanted more education.

She continued her studies 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 which she earned a little money to send back to her parents. Mary graduated from Scotia Seminary in July 1894, but her parents, unable to get enough money together for a 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. Mary took courses that would help her qualify for missionary work in Africa. She also worked in Chicago's slums, feeding the hungry, assisting the homeless, 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.

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. 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 local 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 for five years, and Mary began selling insurance policies for Afro-American Life. (In 1923, Mary founded Tampa's Central Life Insurance, becoming the company's 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 the wealthy of Daytona Beach.

Mary and her family headed to Daytona and rented a run-down cottage for $11 a month. 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.

Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute

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 50 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 about the importance of education; 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 left the family in 1907 to return to South Carolina, where he died in 1919 of tuberculosis.

School Growth

Bethune's goal was to create a top-rated school where students would acquire the requisite needed to succeed in life. She provided agricultural training so that students would learn how 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 also swallowed her pride and decided to solicit aid from rich whites. Her tenacity paid off 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. For example, 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 donated. With this support, 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.

Merger

Bethune maintained her "Head, Hands, and Heart" teaching philosophy and the overcrowded school kept growing. To expand, the 45-year-old Bethune hopped on her bike, going door-to-door soliciting contributions and selling sweet potato pies.

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

Women’s Rights

Bethune believed that raising the status of African-American women was key to elevating the race; thus, beginning in 1917, she 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 an 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, Bethune defeated Ida B. Wells, with whom she had a contentious relationship over teaching methods, to become 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 the NACW’s headquarters to Washington, D.C.

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

Advisor to Presidents

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

A year later, it was U.S. President Calvin Coolidge who wanted Bethune’s advice. Later, Herbert Hoover 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 to be fired. Black women became primary breadwinners, working in jobs of servitude. The Great Depression increased racial hostility, but Bethune ignored established mores by frequently speaking out. Her outspokenness caused journalist Ida Tarbell to deem her one of America's most influential women in 1930.

When Franklin Roosevelt became president, he created several programs for blacks and appointed Bethune as his 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 at her home.

On October 24, 1945, President Harry Truman chose Bethune to attend the United Nations' founding convention. Bethune was the only black female delegate, and the event was the highlight of her life.

Death

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

Knowing death was near, Mary penned "My Last Will and Testament," in which she summed up 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."

Legacy

Against all odds, Bethune greatly improved the lives of African-Americans through education, political involvement, and economic enablement. In 1974, a sculpture of Bethune teaching children was erected in Washington D.C.'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. Today, her legacy lives on through the college that bears her name.

Sources

  • Bethune, Mary McLeod, et al. "Mary McLeod Bethune: Building a Better World: Essays and Selected Documents." Indiana University Press, 2001.
  • Kelley, Samuel L. "Faith, Hope and Charity: Mary McLeod Bethune." Xlibris Corporation, 2014.