Mary Jane McLeod Bethune was a prominent Black American educator and civil and women’s rights leader of the 20th century. Mary, born on July 10, 1875, was one of the seventeen children of Samuel and Patsy McLeod. Her parents and some of her older siblings were enslaved before the American Civil War.
After the Civil War, Mary’s mother worked for her former owner until she could afford to buy some land to cultivate cotton. Mary spent much of her childhood balancing her studies and her work in cotton fields. She had the unusual opportunity to attend school and receive education – which was not common among African Americans – following the Civil War.
Mary graduated from Scotia Seminary (now Barber-Scotia College), in Concord, North Carolina, in 1893, and from the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago in 1895. During her studies, she had a goal of doing missionary work in Africa. However, with no church willing to sponsor her she turned to teaching.
Mary married Albertus Bethune in 1898, with whom she had a son. Mary taught in different schools before moving to the East Coast of Florida in 1904. In Florida, she worked at the Presbyterian Church and also sold insurance. Her marriage ended shortly after.
A large group of the African American population had grown up there at the time of the construction of the Florida East Coast Railway. Mary knew that education was one of the few ways black citizens, especially black women, could break the cycle of poverty and dependence on racial systems. The blacks were denied voting rights and economic opportunities. In addition, there were very few schools for black girls in the area.
In October 1904, Mary opened a boarding school, the Daytona Beach Literary and Industrial School for training Negro girls. She had no assets with her to start the school so she worked tirelessly to build a schoolhouse. She asked for the contribution and goodwill of both African American and White American communities for developing the school.
Mary’s hard work caught the attention of both Black and White American philanthropists who vacationed in Florida. Soon, the school board got many of the nation’s most famous businessmen, including John D. Rockefeller Jr., as members. Madam C.J. Walker, black millionaire and businesswoman, was also one of the donors in the later years. In 1911, Mary added a nursing programme so that the school could open its own hospital. The local hospitals at that time were reluctant to serve black patients.
By 1923, with more public schools opening, Mary shifted her focus to helping young women after high school. The school was merged with the Cookman Institute to form what was known from 1929 as Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach. It issued its first degrees in 1943. Mary remained the president of the college until 1942 and also from 1946-1947. Under her administration, the college won full accreditation and grew to an enrolment of over 1,000.
Mary saw education as a way to fight against the racial injustices in the United States. She also knew that teaching alone would not solve all the problems. She was active in the anti-lynching and desegregation campaigns. During World War I, her son joined the army. At this time, she pressured the Red Cross to integrate its services.
Mary fought for integrated state advisory boards, better skill training for the youth and for including more black staff within the NYA.
Mary was elected president of the National Association of Coloured Women in 1924. In 1935, she founded the National Council of Negro Women, for which she served as President from 1935 to 1949. She was the vice-president of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) from 1940 to 1955. She participated in special commissions under President Calvin Coolidge and President Herbert Hoover. Through these works, she met First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
In her last days, Mary wrote My Last Will and Testament, which outlined her philosophies.
Eleanor and Mary believed that they could improve the status of women and people of colour in America. Eleanor encouraged her husband, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, President of the United States, to give Mary a leadership role. In 1934, President Roosevelt appointed Mary as director of the Division of Negro Affairs for the National Youth Administration (NYA). The NYA was the first federal agency to aid black youth through educational and vocational training projects.
Mary fought for integrated state advisory boards, better skill training for the youth and for including more black staff within the NYA. She was also a part of the ‘Black Cabinet’, a small group that advised Franklin D. Roosevelt on policies relating to Black American citizens.
Mary used her high-profile positions to good effect to fight against racial inequality. She also served as the assistant director of the Women’s Army Corps during World War II. In that role, she advocated for black women in the armed forces. After World War II, President Harry S. Truman appointed Mary as a delegate to the San Francisco Conference, in which the United Nations was formed.
In her last days, Mary wrote My Last Will and Testament, which outlined her philosophies. In it, she emphasised the importance of love, hope, education, racial dignity and support for the future generations. She died on May 18, 1955.
In 1974, a monument in her honour was unveiled in Washington, D.C. This was the first statue on public land in Washington, D.C., to honour a Black American woman. It includes a depiction of Mary handing her legacy to future generations.
Now put on your thinking hats and think about the following questions for a couple of minutes.
Can you think of how the boarding school opened by Mary McLeod Bethune helped black women in Florida?
How would you describe the contributions of Mary McLeod Bethune in the upliftment of the black community?
Write down your thoughts and discuss them with your students, children and your colleagues. Listen to their views and compare them with your own. As you listen to others, note how similar or different your views are to others’.
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