Mary McLeod Bethune
Born to parents who were slaves and working in the fields herself by the age of 5 in Mayesville, South Carolina, Bethune took an interest to becoming educated. She attended a one-room schoolhouse - Trinity Mission School - and her teacher became a significant mentor in her life. Bethune later attended college with the goal of becoming a missionary in Africa, with big plans to teach.
Bethune started teaching at her former elementary school, and then at Haines Normal and Industrial Institute, founded and run by Lucy Craft Laney. Laney’s educational philosophies shaped Bethune’s, especially in the realm of educating girls and women to empower and improve the conditions of black people. Bethune was eventually transferred to Kindell Institute, where she met her husband.
She opened an African-American girls school in Daytona Beach, which later merged with a private institute African-American boys school, which became the Bethune-Cookman school, operating as President of the College from 1923 to 1942. Shortly after, Bethune had to give up her presidency, as her health was in decline due to her many responsibilities.
Bethune died in 1955 from a heart attack, with editorial tributes recalling her courage, resilience, and genius. Her hometown newspaper confirmed her legacy: “To some she seemed unreal, something that could not be.... What right had she to greatness?... The lesson of Mrs. Bethune's life is that genius knows no racial barriers.”
Lived: July 10, 1875 - May 18, 1955
Why She Matters
As well as being an educator, Bethune was a civil rights activist who devoted herself to social causes and worked hard to advance the rights of both African-Americans and women.
She was the only child to go to school in a family of 17 children; she walked miles each way to attend and would share her knowledge with her family
On top of receiving donations for her all-girls school, Bethune and her students stretched their resources, making benches and desks from discarded crates, and even made ink for their pens from elderberry juice. They also raised money through selling delicacies to the work crews at the dump.
Known as “The First Lady of The Struggle” because of her dedication to bettering the lives for African-Americans.
Appointed as a national adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt as part of the Black Cabinet.
Served as a public leader for various organizations, including the National Association of Colored Women, the Southeastern Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, the National Council of Negro Women, the National Youth Administration, and the Black Cabinet, all the while working with both the whites and blacks to educate about the needs and accomplishments of African-Americans.
Leaving a Legacy
In 1973 (18 years after her death), she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
A crater on Venus is named after her.
Various schools have been named in her honor all across the United States.
Before her passing, Bethune penned her Last Will and Testament, and among her spiritual reflections and legacies, she wrote these resonating words: “I leave you a thirst for education. Knowledge is the prime need of the hour… If I have a legacy to leave my people, it is my philosophy of living and serving.”