Mary Mcleod Bethune: Educator and Civil Rights Leader

Mary McLeod Bethune. Public Domain


Mary Mcleod Bethune once said, "be calm, be steadfast, be courageous." Throughout her life as an educator, organizational leader, and prominent government official, Bethune was characterized by her ability to help those in need.

Key Accomplishments

1923: Established Bethune-Cookman College

1935: Founded the National Council of New Negro Women

1936: Key organizer for the Federal Council on Negro Affairs, an advisory board to President Franklin D. Roosevelt

1939: Director of the Division of Negro Affairs for the National Youth Administration

Early Life and Education

Bethune was born Mary Jane McLeod on July 10, 1875, in Mayesville, SC. The fifteenth of seventeen children, Bethune was raised on a rice and cotton farm. Both of her parents , Samuel and Patsy McIntosh McLeod had been enslaved. 

As a child, Bethune expressed an interest in learning to read and write.She attended Trinity Mission School, a one-room schoolhouse established by the Presbyterian Board of Missions of Freedmen. After completing her education at the Trinity Mission School, Bethune received a scholarship to attend the Scotia Seminary, which is today known as the Barber-Scotia College. Following her attendance at the seminary, Bethune participated in the Dwight L. Moody's Institute for Home and Foreign Missions in Chicago, which is today known as the Moody Bible Institute. Bethune's goal for attending the institute was to become an African missionary, but she decided to teach.

After working as a social worker in Savannah for a year, Bethune moved to Palatka, Fl to work as the administrator of a mission school. By 1899, Bethune was not only running the mission school but also performing outreach services to prisoners.

Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls

In 1896, while Bethune was working as an educator, she had a dream that Booker T. Washington showed her a ragged clothe which held a diamond. In the dream, Washington told her, "here, take this and build your school."

By 1904, Bethune was ready. After renting a small house in Daytona, Bethune made benches and desks out of crates and opened the Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls. When the school opened, Bethune had six students--girls ranging in age from six to twelve--and her son, Albert.

Bethune taught the students about Christianity followed by home economics, dressmaking, cooking and other skills that stressed independence. By 1910, the school's enrollment increased to 102.

By 1912, Washington was mentoring Bethune, helping her to gain the financial support of White philanthropists such as James Gamble and Thomas H. White.

Additional funds for the school were raised by the African American community--hosting bake sales and fish fries--which were sold to construction sites that had come to Daytona Beach. African American churches supplied the school with money and equipment as well.

By 1920, Bethune's school was valued at $100,000 and boasted an enrollment of 350 students. During this time, finding teaching staff became difficult, so Bethune changed the name of the school to the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute. The school expanded its curriculum to included education courses. By 1923, the school merged with the Cookman Institute for Men in Jacksonville.

Since then, the Bethune's school has been known as Bethune-Cookman. In 2004, the school celebrated its 100th anniversary.

Civic Leader

In addition to Bethune's work as an educator, she was also a prominent public leader, holding positions with the following organizations:

  • National Association of Colored Women. As a member of the NACW, Bethune served as the chapter president of Florida from 1917 to 1925. In this position, she attempted to register African American voters. By 1924, her activism with the NACW along with the Southeastern Federation of Colored Women's Clubs helped Bethune become elected as the national president of the organization. Under Bethune's leadership, the organization expanded to include a national headquarters and executive secretary.
  • National Council of Negro Women. In 1935, Bethune merged 28 various organizations to help improve the lives of women and their children. Through the National Council of Negro Women, Bethune was able to host the White House Conference on Negro Women and Children. The organization also helped African American women into military roles through the Women's Army Corps during World War II.
  • Black Cabinet. Using her close relationship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Bethune established the Federal Council on Negro Affairs, which became known as the Black Cabinet. In this position, Bethune's cabinet was an advisory board to the Roosevelt administration.


Throughout Bethune's life, she was honored with many awards including:

Personal Life

In 1898, she married Albertus Bethune. The couple resided in Savanah, where Bethune worked as a social worker. Eight years later, Albertus and Bethune separated but never divorced. He died in 1918. Before their separation, the Bethune's had one son, Albert.


When Bethune died in May of 1955, her life was tributed in newspapers--large and small--throughout the United States. The Atlanta Daily World explained that Bethune's life was "one of the most dramatic careers ever enacted at any time upon the stage of human activity."

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Lewis, Femi. "Mary Mcleod Bethune: Educator and Civil Rights Leader." ThoughtCo, Oct. 8, 2021, Lewis, Femi. (2021, October 8). Mary Mcleod Bethune: Educator and Civil Rights Leader. Retrieved from Lewis, Femi. "Mary Mcleod Bethune: Educator and Civil Rights Leader." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 29, 2023).