In 1875, Mary McLeod was the fifteenth of seventeen children born to parents Samuel and Patsy, who’d been enslaved in South Carolina. Following the Civil War, her parents had worked for their former owner until they could buy some of the land they’d always worked. By the age of nine, Mary was picking two hundred and fifty pounds of cotton a day on the family’s farm.
As part of Reconstruction efforts, benefactors sponsored a scholarship for Mary to attend the Scotia Seminary for Negro Girls in North Carolina, and one year at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois. During her schooling, she developed a passion for educating girls to become leaders in their communities.
Originally intending to be a missionary, no church would sponsor Mary. She pivoted to education and found work as a teacher back in South Carolina. There, she married Albertus Bethune, a fellow teacher. During their tumultuous marriage, they moved to Florida and raised their son, Albert. Determined to follow her passion, Mary invested “$1.50 and her faith in God” to establish the Educational and Industrial School for Negro Girls, a boarding school in Daytona. Albertus left the family to return to South Carolina, but Mary and her son remained at the school. In 1923, she negotiated a merger of her school with the all-male Cookman Institute in Jackson, Florida. The combined co-ed institution became Bethune-Cookman College, which continues to enroll over 2,500 students every year. Mary served as President until 1942.
Not content to simply shepherd the growth of the college she created, Bethune also partnered with the Florida Federation of Colored Women’s clubs to establish a home for delinquent Black girls in Ocala and then served as president of the Southeastern Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs (1920-25), the National Association of Teachers in Colored Schools (1923-24) and the National Association of Colored Women (1924-28). She was a tireless advocate for racial and gender equality and devoted her energies to voter registration drives after White women earned the right to vote. Bethune also co-owned a resort and co-founded the Central Life Insurance Company of Tampa, which, due to Jim Crow laws, catered to Black clients.
Poet and activist Langston Hughes recalled giving a reading at Bethune-Cookman College in 1929. After the event, Bethune shared a ride with Hughes back to New York City. In that era, Black travelers were required to carry the Travelers’ Green Book that listed the places where African Americans were allowed to stop for meals, restrooms, and overnight accommodations. Hughes wrote in his autobiography that Bethune avoided the indignity of segregated facilities as they travelled. He said, “Colored people along the eastern seaboard spread a feast and opened their homes wherever Mrs. Bethune passed their way.” In fact, he continued, “chickens, sensing that she was coming, went flying off frantically seeking a hiding place. They knew a heaping platter of southern fried chicken would be made in her honor.”
As a recognized leader in the Black community, Mary Bethune was invited to the White House by President Herbert Hoover in 1930 to attend a conference and she began to build political connections at the national level. She was introduced to the Roosevelts and became close friends with Eleanor, who helped Mary gain access to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt throughout the 1930s.
In 1936, President Roosevelt invited her to join the National Youth Administration and in 1939 she was named Director of Negro Affairs. As Director, Bethune was the highest paid African American in government - with a $5,000 salary. For reference, the average salary at the time was $1,700 and the cost of a house was $3,925.
Under her direction, the National Youth Administration employed hundreds of thousands of Black men and women and established a “Negro College and Graduate Fund” to support the college aspirations of more than 4,000 students. While working in the Roosevelt administration, Mary led what she referred to as “the Black cabinet.” This group of advisors informed Roosevelt on issues of lynching legislation, attempts to ban the poll taxes that suppressed votes in the South, welfare policies, and employment opportunities. The Black Cabinet, with great influence from Mary Bethune and Eleanor Roosevelt, also helped to draft presidential executive orders that ended the exclusion of Blacks in the military and defense industries during World War II. Their work is credited with laying the foundation for the Civil Rights Movement.
In 1940, Bethune was named vice president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons (NAACP), a position she held until her death in 1955. Appointmented by President Harry S. Truman, Bethune was the only American woman of color at the founding conference of the United Nations in 1945. There, she advocated for human rights and the right to self-determination for people living in colonized countries. Her efforts unfortunately fell short and Bethune left the conference with a deep sense of disappointment.
Bethune regularly wrote for the leading African American newspapers, the Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago Defender. During her lifetime, she faced innumerable incidents of prejudice and discrimination. But nothing was going to stand in her way of advocating for opportunities and recognition for African Americans. Her long list of accomplishments earned her eleven honorary degrees from both Black and white colleges. After her death, she was the first Black woman to have a national monument dedicated to her in the nation’s capital.
To learn more Mary McLeod Bethune, we recommend the National WWII Museum’s Mary McLeod Bethune, and Women’s History’s Mary McLeod Bethune as well as the books: Mary McLeod Bethune: Building a Better World by Audrey Thomas McCluskey and Elaine M. Smith, Indiana University Press, 1999 and Mary McLeod Bethune: Her Life and Legacy by Nancy Long, Florida Historical Society Press, 2019.