Born: July 10, 1875
Mayesville, South Carolina
Died: May 18, 1955
Daytona Beach, Florida
African American educator
Mary McLeod Bethune, an African American teacher, was one of the great educators in United States history. She was a leader of women, an adviser to several American presidents, and a powerful champion of equality among races.
Mary McLeod was born in Mayesville, South Carolina. Her parents, Samuel and Patsy McLeod, were former slaves, as were most of her brothers and sisters. (Mary was the fifteenth of seventeen children.) After her parents were freed, they saved up and bought a small farm of their own. Mary helped her parents on the family farm. When she was eleven years old, she entered a school established by a missionary from the Presbyterian Church. She walked five miles to and from school each day, then spent her evenings teaching everything she had learned to the rest of her family.
Later Mary received a scholarship to attend Scotia Seminary, a school for African American girls in Concord, North Carolina. She was strongly influenced by both white and black teachers there and met some of the people with whom she would work closely later. Although she was very serious about her studies, this did not prevent her from becoming a lively dancer and developing a lasting love of music. Dynamic and alert, she was very popular. Her classmates looked to her as a leader. After graduating in 1893 she attended the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois.
After graduation from the Moody Bible Institute, Mary wished to become a missionary in Africa. However, she was told that African Americans were not allowed to take positions like that. She became an instructor at the Presbyterian Mission School in Mayesville in 1896 and later at Haines Institute in Augusta, Georgia, in 1896 and 1897. While she was working at Kindell Institute in Sumpter, South Carolina, in 1897 and 1898, she met Albertus Bethune, whom she later married and had a son with. Her devotion to the education of African American children caused problems with the marriage, however, and the couple eventually separated.
In 1904 the construction of the Florida East Coast Railroad brought hundreds of African Americans to the area looking for work. Bethune saw a need for education to improve the lives of these people. She began her career as an educator in earnest when she rented a two-story house in Daytona Beach, Florida, and began the difficult task of establishing a school for African American girls. Thus, in an era when most African American children received little or no education, the Daytona Literary and Industrial School for Training Negro Girls was begun in October 1904, with six pupils (five girls and her own son). There was no equipment—crates were used for desks, charcoal took the place of pencils, and ink came from crushed berries.
At first Bethune did everything herself—teaching, administrative duties, handling the money, and keeping the school clean. She also searched garbage dumps for items that the school could restore and use, such as furniture and pieces of wood. Later she was able to secure a staff, many of whom worked loyally for her for many years. To help pay for expansion of the school, Bethune and her pupils baked pies and made ice cream to sell to nearby construction workers. In addition to her regular classes, Bethune organized classes for the children of turpentine workers. In these ways she satisfied her desire to serve as a missionary.
As the school at Daytona grew, it needed more money to run successfully. Bethune began to seek donations from anywhere she could. In 1912 she interested James M. Gamble of the Procter and Gamble Company of Cincinnati, Ohio, who contributed to the school and served as chairman of its board of trustees until his death. In 1923 Bethune's school for girls merged with Cookman Institute of Jacksonville, Florida, a school for boys. The new school became known as Bethune-Cookman Collegiate Institute, soon renamed Bethune-Cookman College. Bethune served as president of the college until her retirement in 1942. She remained a trustee of the college to the end of her life. By 1955 the college had a faculty (teachers and administrative staff) of one hundred and a student enrollment of over one thousand.
Bethune's business activities were confined to the Central Life Insurance Company of Tampa, Florida, of which she was president for several years; the Afro-American Life Insurance Company of Jacksonville, which she served as director; and the Bethune-Volusia Beach Corporation, a recreation area and housing development she founded in 1940. In addition she wrote numerous magazine and newspaper articles and contributed chapters to several books. In 1932 she founded and organized the National Council of Negro Women and became its president. By 1955 the organization had a membership of eight hundred thousand.
Bethune also gained national recognition in 1936, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945) appointed her director of African American affairs in the National Youth Administration and a special adviser on minority affairs. She served for eight years and supervised the development of employment opportunities and recreational facilities for African American youth throughout the United States. She also served as special assistant to the secretary of war during World War II (1939–45). In the course of her government assignments she became a close friend of Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962). During her long career Bethune received many honorary (received without fulfilling the usual requirements) degrees and awards, including the Haitian Medal of Honor and Merit (1949), the highest award of the Haitian government. Mary McLeod Bethune died in Daytona Beach on May 18, 1955, of a heart attack. She was buried on the campus of Bethune-Cookman College.
Halasa, Malu. Mary McLeod Bethune. New York: Chelsea House, 1989.
Poole, Bernice Anderson. Mary McLeod Bethune. Los Angeles: Melrose Square, 1994.