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Mary McLeod Bethune spent her life educating and working to earn human rights for African Americans. She was an educator, advocator, leader, and humanitarian that dedicated many years to equality and the uplift of African-Americans lifestyles. She felt that education and access to knowledge was the only way to battle adversities that were crippling the black community. Bethune took on and accomplished many great tasks as an African-American woman in hopes of proving that one person can make a powerful positive impact on society.
She was born on July 10, 1875 in Mayesville, South Carolina to Samuel and Patsy McLeod. Mary McLeod was the fifteenth of seventeen children. Both her parents had been slaves, but after emancipation they acquired land and began instilling vital attributes within their children. As a child Mary worked the cotton field, witnessed her parents provide religious and food services to others, and helped her mother with the laundry that she did for local white people. One day Bethune had an experience that would motivate her to become an educated African-American woman. While delivering the laundry with her mother to a white employer Mary McLeod picked up a book the customer’s granddaughter lashed out telling her to put the book down because blacks could not read (Bolden, 1998, p.94). Historian John Hope Franklin said, education was “the greatest single opportunity to escape the indignities and proscriptions of an oppressive white south” (Bolden, 1998, p.95). The pain young Mary felt on that day inspired her to take an interest in education and provoked the need to overcome oppression.
Mary attended a local Presbyterian missionary school during her early years. Around the age of twelve Mary McLeod received a scholarship to attend Scotia Seminary in Concord, North Carolina. Merry Chrissman, a Quaker, wanted to give a promising student a chance at continuing education by paying their tuition for a year. Emma Wilson, Mary’s teacher from the missionary school, choose her as the recipient (Wilds, 2004, p.24-25).At Scotia, Mary McLeod had her first educational experience with white people. According to Wright (1999, p.9) Mary stated the following in regards to education at Scotia it:
“broadened my horizon and gave me my first intellectual contacts with white people, for the school had a mixed faculty. The white teachers taught that the color of a person’s skin has nothing to do with his brains, and that color, caste, or class distinctions are an evil thing.”
Seven years later Mary McLeod Bethune graduated from Scotia. Years at the Christian school had reinforced her faith and Mary decided that she wanted to be a missionary in Africa. Mary began attending the Moody Institute for Home and Foreign Missions, in Chicago. At Moody Mary was the only African-American student, but this time helped her realize that black and white people could live and work together with objectivity (Johnson-Miller, 1998). Mary’s requests to be a mission were denied by the institution (Bolden, 1998, p.98). Reasons behind this decision by the institute were that there were “no openings for Negro missionaries in Africa” (Wright, 1999, p. 5). Mary describes this as “…the greatest disappointment in my life” (Wilds, 2004, p. 26).
Mary prevailed over this disappointment and decided that instead of teaching Africans she would begin working with African-Americans. So under the instruction of Lucy Laney Mary McLeod started teaching at Haines Institute, in Augusta, Georgia. During this time Mary McLeod and Lucy Laney were dedicated to supporting the derelict children in this low-income community. Other black communities that Mary traveled to and taught in were Sumpter, South Carolina, Savannah, Georgia, and Palatka, Florida. In Palataka, Florida McLeod organized the Mission Sabbath School for the poorest children. (Hine, Brown, Terborg-Penn, 1992, p.114). Mary McLeod met Albertus Bethune during her time at the Presbyterian’s Kendall Institute in Sumter, South Carolina. They married in 1898, and had one child Albert McLeod Bethune (Hine et.al, 1992, p.114). Their marriage was not jovial, and the Bethune’s separated in 1907. Albertus Bethune died in 1918. While advancing blacks Mary did not incorporate marriage and family often, they were secondary institutions. Her failed marriage may have been the reason behind this. Albert McLeod Bethune never finished college and was unsuccessful at several jobs. In 1920 he had a son, Albert McLeod Bethune Jr., which Mary adored. She adopted him and reared him, Albert McLeod Bethune Jr. went on to get a Masters Degree in Library Sciences and worked as a librarian in Daytona beach at the institution his grandmother founded (Hine et.al, 1992, p. 114).
Many blacks were heading to Florida’s east coast to do railroad construction, so Bethune followed with aspirations of opening a school in the area. The conditions of the blacks in Daytona stunned her. She recalled, “hundreds of Negroes had gathered in Florida for construction work. I found there dense ignorance and meager educational facilities, racial prejudice of the most violent type – crime and violence” (Wright, 1999, p.7) Bethune knew that this was the place to began making a change. On October 3, 1904 Bethune founded the Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls. She modeled her school after her alma mater, Scotia Seminary. According to Jessie Carney Smith (2001, p.68) Mary stated that she started the school with “five little girls, a dollar and a half and faith in God.” The early days were quite difficult; Mary McLeod begged for rudiments and gathered dry goods boxes for benches. However with help from Daytona’s black leaders and influential white men and women the school excelled. In 1905, it was chartered as the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Scholars. Stressing religion and industrial education the students were active participants in the production and handling of food to meet needs and provide income to the school. There were many volunteers and less regular teachers, who were paid from fifteen to twenty dollars a month with board included (Wright, 1999, p.7). Her plan for the school was to have the girls educated on how to upkeep the home, which would include sewing and cooking so they would have skills to be hired as a maid, cook, dressmaker and above all a teacher.
Financial assistance was low but a creative Bethune explored many avenues to gain aid. She organized a choir that gave concerts in churches and hotels to bring in money. Bethune became familiar with important businessmen such as, Thomas White, John D. Rockefeller, Henry J. Kaiser and James M. Gamble, though these financial undertakings. These men took notice in Bethune and her school, provided funding, and eventually formed her board of trustees (Wright, 1999, p.8). The institute continued to expand as Bethune advocated for her students and the necessity for blacks to have access to the same levels of education as whites. She wanted to prevent limitation and offer blacks a chance at becoming productive members of society. In 1923 the Daytona Institute merged with the coeducational Cookman Institute in Jacksonville, Florida (Smith, 2001, p.68). Combined they became known as Bethune-Cookman College (BCC). The unification could not have come at a better time. With the onset of the Great Depression Bethune might have not been able to weather the storm along, but as a determined woman she did take necessary precautions to keep the school running; such as cancelling athletic and social affairs, slashing salaries and cutting courses (Hine et.al, 1992, p.116). She believed that Bethune-Cookman College was the only option that many blacks had to attend college, and if the white colleges could make it through the depression she knew her school could as well. In 1942 Bethune-Cookman became a four year college, but the school never lost sight of Bethune’s founding principle of combining religion, vocational program, and academia. Bethune had accomplished an amazing task by starting with a school for destitute youth but in the end cultivating a senior college.
Mary McLeod Bethune was seeking to make change during a time of great oppression and she faced great resistance to social change by many whites around here in the southern states. Nothing deferred her from her dream of educating and improving the lives of black women. Despite threats from the Ku Klux Klan she led a successful black voter registration drive. She wanted her students and other black women to rise above barriers placed on them by society (Sicherman et.al, 1980, p.77). She established herself as a strong black woman and did not let the Jim Crow laws or persistence of whites to keep blacks in low-end jobs slow her down.
Establishing a school was the foundation of Bethune’s prominence in the women’s club movement. From 1917-1924 Bethune served as the president of the Florida Federation of Colored Women. As president of this organization Bethune was faced with three main issues World War I (WWI), female enfranchisement , and rehabilitative services for delinquent black girls. In response to America’s entry into WWI Bethune promoted canning and preserving food, making articles for soldiers and their families, and assisting the Red Cross. In accord with the Nineteenth Amendment to the constitution voter rolls became open to women in Daytona. Despite the Ku Klux Klan’s attempt to sway and impede Bethune organized and registered herself, her entire faculty and staff, and other local black women (Hine et.al, 1992, p.118). Continuing with her legacy of offering chances to young women Bethune began to tackle the issue of a rehabilitative environment for delinquent black girls. Black female juvenile delinquents were placed in prison with adult lawbreakers, because there was not a facility that was for unruly black female youth. However there was a facility for white juvenile delinquent youth, the Industrial School in Ocala. In response to this the Florida Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs launched an alternative facility for up to twelve residents in Ocala (Hine et.al, 1992, 118). Bethune opened the new Industrial School on September 20, 1921. This facility was directly funded by Bethune and a financial campaign until the late 20’s when the state finally began funding this facility. Florida had been funding the Industrial School for white juvenile delinquents since 1913(Hine et.al, 1992, 118). Bethune believed that these young girls needed direction that they were not getting in the state prison in Raiford. She developed this facility in attempt to continue reducing unfairness and inequality that black women endured from systems in America. While heading the Florida Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs Bethune founded the Southeastern Federation of Colored Women in 1920. Through this organization Bethune created relationships with open-minded white women for common welfare (Hine et.al, 1992, p.118).Contributing leadership for the women’s general committee of the regional Commission on Interracial Cooperation was a great feat for the Southeastern Federation of Colored Women (Hine et.al, 1992, .118).
Bethune’s presence, values, and drive were unavoidable when she became president of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). According to Sicherman et.al (1980 p.78) reaching presidency of the NACW was the highest office that a black woman at this time could aspire to reach. NACW was the premier black women’s organization. Bethune benefited directly from working with the NACW’s white counterpart the General Foundation of Women’s Clubs. During her presidency of this association Bethune used her girls’ school as a base for NACW civic and charitable work (Hine, 1992, p117). As president of the NACW, Bethune worked intensely on projecting a positive image of black women to whites. She wanted to create roles for black women in both national and international arenas, she stated to her members, “we must make this national body of colored women a significant link between the peoples of color throughout the world” (Smith, 2001, p.70). Bethune’s statement showed how advanced and limitless her thinking was as an activist. She wanted black women to understand that any goal was attainable. Bethune enhanced this organization by revising the constitution, improving their periodical, National Notes, and exemplifying great communication. The organizations first fixed headquarters was established in Washington, D.C. under Bethune (Sicherman et.al, 1980, p.78). The NACW was the first all-black organization operating in the nation’s capital with other white national organizations.
Working with the NACW had halted Bethune’s focus on black women’s presence in national affairs. Bethune wanted black women to play a tangible role in the legislative process involving individual and family survival. Bethune felt the best way to reach this point was to establish an organization that encompassed all existing national women’s organizations (Hine, 1992, p.120). NACW continuously declined her emphasis upon a cohesive body. Realizing that NACW was deeply involved in local issues, and did not grasp her hopes for black women on a national level Bethune fashioned her own vision. In December of 1935 Bethune founded the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW). NCNW united major national black women’s association (Sichermen, 1980, p.80). In Bethune’s fourteen year presidency she focused the council’s activities on segregation and discrimination, on cultivation of international relationships, and on national liberal causes. Increasing the membership Bethune made chapters of NCNW in major cities. By the end of her term Bethune had developed a council that included twenty-two national women’s organizations, academic sororities, Christian denominational societies, fraternal associations, auxiliaries, and eighty-two local councils (Hine, 1992, p.120). She also established headquarters for the NCNW in Washington, DC., employed a full-time staff, and initiated the Aframerican Women’s Journal. With the NCNW Bethune brought visibility to black women in the nation’s capital, through the “Conference on Governmental Cooperation in the Approach to the Problems of Negro Women and Children.” During these conferences sixty-five women of African descent met with the government employees to discuss incorporating black females into social bureaucracies. In 1941 the War Department accepted NCNW as a member of its women’s advisory council (Hine et.al, 1992, p.120). Acceptance by the War Department allowed organized black women to participate in government programs. This accomplishment gave the NCNW more leeway in endorsing federal employment, effective enfranchisement, anti-lynching, and internationalism. Bethune fought to diminish racist practices and gender prejudices through conferences, petitions, and civil service reform. The NCNW took a commanding stand on women in the military. Their goal was reached in all services in 1949 when the women’s Marine Corps admitted a black applicant (Hine et.al, 1992, p.120). Bethune’s inner workings with the Franklin Roosevelt Administration helped her rise the NCNW to great heights.
Mary McLeod Bethune met Eleanor Roosevelt at a luncheon at Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s mother’s house. They became allies forming a bond that would work to improve Blacks opportunities on a national level. Eleanor Roosevelt advocated on behalf of blacks and Bethune to her husband and other politicians many times. During the Depression the Black community felt like it was being ignored within the national relief plan the FDR was implementing. According to Wright (1999 p. 10) The Negro press told Eleanor that “…the only way the Negro is going to get fair treatment is for the government to see to it that a strong, capable Negro…is appointed to get things moving in the right direction for Negro relief.” Bethune was that strong and capable Negro, so Roosevelt asked her to accept an appointment on the advisory board of the National Youth Administration. NYA was established in 1935 to aid young people ages sixteen to twenty- four during the Great Depression (Smith, 2001, p.70). This was the first post filled by a black woman in the history of the United States. Bethune and her staff educated millions of underprivileged children and she enrolled 600,000 students in the classes NYA was offering in her first year. When Roosevelt created the office of Division of Negro Affairs of the NYA he made Bethune the director (Wright, 1999, p.10). With this position through the New Deal Bethune continued to resolve disagreements between her white colleges and black constituents. According to Smith (2001, p. 71) Bethune brought great assets to this position her charismatic personality, platform style, insight into race relations, abilities to influence people, and well known reputation. In attempt to pool the individual talents of all the Blacks in Roosevelt administration Bethune created the Black Cabinet. The Black Cabinet offered an esteemed Black presence in politics at the capital, and coordinated government programs for Blacks. Bethune saw that Blacks were included in all new programs that the NYA offered. The Civilian Pilot Training Program included six black colleges offering flight instruction. Their programs laid the foundation for black pilots in the military (Hine et.al, 1992, p.125).
Bethune left government when the NYA was eradicated in 1944, but she never ended her fight for the black race. She fought discrimination within the armed forces, serving as a Special Civilian Assistant to the war department. Bethune served as a US delegate and she represented the NAACP at the first meeting of the United Nations. She was also on President Truman’s Committee for National Defense (Wright, 1999, p.12) n her late seventies Bethune returned to her cottage on the Bethune-Cookman campus. She died at the age of 79 from a heart attack on May 18, 1955 (Smith, 2001, p.72).
Mary McLeod Bethune was an eminent leader that served on many council’s and boards in addition to the organizations that she had initiated; President of the National Association of Teachers in Colored schools, vice president of the Commission on Interracial Operation, and president of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. Her advocation was important to the National Urban League, Southern Conferences for Human Welfare and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (Sicherman et.al, 1980 p.78).Bethune’s lifelong dedication to Christian faith and social services left a legacy of spiritual and social transformation. Her school that began as a rented cottage with five students but grew to become a senior college, Bethune-Cookman College, is the only historically Black college founded by a Black woman that continues to thrive today. Bethune inspired and became a role model for her students as she battled not only the issue of race but gender as well. Bethune had learned in her days at Scotia Seminary that whites and blacks could work together, often serving as the only Black woman in many committees the unequal distribution of Blacks in policy making arenas only inspired Bethune to continue encouraging Black women to reach new heights.
Never halted by others disproval or lack of support Bethune’s goal were limitless for Black women. She went from a little girl in Mayesville to a powerful advisor of President Roosevelt during the Depression and President Truman. Holding positions such as the Director of the Division of Negro Affairs of the NYA and presidency in the NCNW allowed Bethune to speak of the injustices that Blacks faced in employment, enfranchisement, social welfare policies, and education. She led many women out of jobs of servitude and introduced them to education. Bethune knew that education was essential it was the only way to improve the state of the black community. Bethune labored for equality during an era when there was no national concern regarding the lower status and conditions of blacks.
- Bolden, Tonya. (1998). And Not Afraid To Dare: The Stories of Ten African-American Woman (pp.91-101). Scholastic Paperbacks
- Bostch, Carol Sears. (2002). Mary McLeod Bethune http://www.usca.edu/aasc/bethune.htm
- Hine, Darlene Clark, Brown, Elsa Barkley & Terborg-Penn, Rosalyn (1992). Black Women in America (pp.113-128).Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press
- Holt, Rackham, (1964). Mary McLeod Bethune “A Biography”. Garden city, NY, 23
- Johnson-Miller, Beverly. (1998). Mary Bethune. http://www.talbot.edu/ce20/educators/view.cfm?n=mary_bethune
- Sicherman, Barbara, Green, Carol Hud, Kantrov, Ilene, Walker, Harriet. (1980). Notable American Women the Modern Period: A Biographical Dictionary (pp.76-80). Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press
- Smith, Jessie Carney. (2001). Black Heroes (pp. 66-72). Canton, MI: Visible Ink Press
- Wilds, Mary. (2004). I Dare Not Fail: Notable African American Women Educators (pp. 24-24). Greensboro, NC: Avisson Press, Incorporated
- Wright, R Brian (1999, April 27). The Idealistic Realist: Mary McLeod Bethune, The National Council of Negro Women and The National Youth Administration (pp.1-12).Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Virginia
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