Mary McLeod Bethune

Mary McLeod Bethune was a great leader of the twentieth century. This famous American grew up amid poverty and racism in the Post Civil War South. Born the daughter of former slaves, she grew up to become a champion for women’s rights and racial equality – an American leader dedicated to education, freedom, and justice for all.

The Early Years

Born on July 10, 1875, as the 15th of 17 children, Mary McLeod Bethune was the first member of her family not born into slavery. Very early in life her dedication was obvious. She first showed it in her desire to learn to read. In 1882, she became the only one of the 17 children in her family to attend the black school opened by missionaries in her hometown of Mayesville, South Carolina. Mary shared her learning, teaching her brothers and sisters to read as well as helping her father read his business contracts to make sure he wasn’t being cheated.


In 1893, Mary received a scholarship to a school in North Carolina. There Mary discovered her talent for teaching. Next she went to Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. She completed her studies, but in1895 she was rejected for missionary work in Africa because she was black. Mary then returned to Mayesville to begin her teaching career at the school where she had once been a student.

After her marriage in 1898 to Alburtus Bethune, a fellow teacher, Mary continued teaching at several private black schools. These were the only schools to serve black youths who wanted to continue their education since no public high schools would accept black students. As a result, Mary decided to open a public school for black students.

She searched the South, looking for a location for her school that would do the most good for the greatest number of her people. In 1900 she opened two schools in Palatka, Florida. Soon she moved to Daytona with her son Albert. In 1904, with very little money and an unshakable faith, she opened the doors of Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School for Girls. Five black students were enrolled in the temporary building, an old rented house. The school was originally designed to teach basic academic skills as well as various practical arts and crafts.

Mary McLeod Bethune’s mission grew to meet the needs of the surrounding black community. It expanded to include a farm, a high school, and a nursing school. She began teaching adults to read and opened her school library to blacks in the community, who at that time were not allowed to use the public library. She also opened a hospital for the blacks who were discriminated against by the local white hospital. Finally, in 1923 Mary’s school merged with the Cookman Institute and became Bethune-Cookman College. Mary served as the president of this well-known institution until 1942.

Political Activities

Mary McLeod Bethune always found time to work with others around the country fighting for the rights of women and blacks. She and eleven other teachers from her school supported the Nineteenth Amendment that gave women the right to vote, and she campaigned vigorously with other women’s rights leaders of the day. She also founded the National Council of Negro Women in 1935 and served as a member of the Black Cabinet to provide a unified voice for black women.

Mary McLeod Bethune spent her life devoted to her philosophy of universal love and working for the rights of all human beings. Even the White House heard her voice. In 1928, President Coolidge invited her to his Child Welfare Conference. In 1930, President Hoover appointed her to the White House Conference on Child Health because of her experience in education. From 1935 to 1944, she served as a special advisor on Minority Affairs. She became the first black woman to lead a federal agency, serving as the Director of the Division of Negro Affairs and working with President Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor. In addition, she traveled to Liberia as the personal representative of President Truman in 1952.


Throughout her life, Mary McLeod Bethune influenced legislation affecting blacks and women. She continued to be an important voice until her death in 1955 at the age of 79. Mary McLeod Bethune lived her life by her words: “The drums of Africa still beat in my heart. They will never let me rest while there is a single Negro boy or girl without a chance to prove his worth.”

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