The notable achievements of educator and civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune is epic. She was the child of former slaves and the hurdles she overcame, despite oppressive segregation and racism, is inspirational. She was born Mary Jane McLeod on this day in 1875 in Mayesville, South Carolina, and was the lone child of her 17 siblings to be born free.
As recalled by McLeod Bethune, she accompanied her mother on a laundry delivery to a White family. When she entered the children’s nursery, she would open a book and one of the White children reportedly snatched the book, telling her to “put that down…you can’t read.”
She would credit that moment as pivotal in sparking a change within her. Watch below:
As chance would have it, a Black missionary visited the home of the McLeods who was starting school. Money was scarce and only one of the children could go. Mary Jane was chosen. She would walk five miles back and forth, finishing her schoolwork by candlelight. She graciously taught what she learned to her family during their free time.
Her scholastic endeavors were nearly derailed after the family’s mule died and money grew scarce. She would temporarily abandon her studies to help on the land, but a benevolent dressmaker in Denver offered a scholarship. Mary Jane was selected and was sent to the Scotia Seminary for Girls in Concord, North Carolina.
After graduating from the school, she had aims of becoming a missionary in Africa but instead headed to Chicago to study at the Moody Bible Institute on a scholarship. Graduating in 1895, she would return to the South and taught in several mission schools much like the one she attended. She married in 1898 to fellow teacher Albertus Bethune and bore one son. The couple separated in 1907.
In 1904, Bethune rented a small house in Daytona, Florida and subsequently began the Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls. The school began on a small scale, with five girls and her son, Albert, making up the student body.
The school was resourceful, and with the help of the parents and church members, Bethune would raise funds in a variety of ways, including bake sales and fish fry events. They even went to local businesses for furniture donations.
The school eventually merged with the Cookman Institute for Men out of Jacksonville in 1923, eventually becoming Bethune-Cookman College, the first fully accredited Black institution of higher learning in Florida. Bethune served as president of the school, stepping down from her post in 1942.
In 1935, Bethune founded the National Council of Negro Women. A year later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed her as the director of the division of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration, becoming an unofficial member of the Cabinet; Roosevelt routinely went to Bethune for advice on minority affairs.
Bethune was a respected figure even up until her death in 1955, inspiring Eleanor Roosevelt to pen a column in memoriam to Bethune. In 1974 on this day, Bethune was honored with a sculpture (pictured above), which was unveiled on the U.S. Capitol grounds and eventually erected in Washington’s historic Lincoln Park.
As we recognize Mary McLeod Bethune on her birthday, we salute and celebrate her lasting and inspirational legacy.