Mary Mcleod Bethune was an amazing woman; an African-American teacher, who started her own school for girls from scratch and went on to be an advisor to presidents, campaigner for civil, and human, rights and champion of girls and young people.
Mary was born in 1875 in Mayesville, South Carolina, she was the fifteenth of seventeen children, and her parents were former slaves. From a very young age Mary worked in the fields with the rest of her family. Mary was the only child in the whole family who was lucky enough to go to school; she had to walk eight miles there and back, to a school which only had one room, and was only for black children. Because no-one else in her family could attend, she would come home from school each day and pass on what she had learned to her brothers and sisters.
Mary believed from a young age that education was the key to helping black people gain equality in all areas of their lives. She especially thought that educating women and girls was vital to transforming whole communities. She said:
“I believe that the greatest hope for the development of my race lies in training our women thoroughly and practically.”
Mary originally trained to be a missionary and hoped to go to Africa, however she was told that black missionaries weren’t needed, and so she decided she would become a teacher.
She first got a job at a school started by another woman called Lucy Craft Laney, who greatly inspired Mary. Lucy was a former slave and was dedicated to providing education for black girls.
Keen to give more young black girls the same opportunity she’d had, Mary decided to open her own school. By this time she was living with her husband and son in Daytona, Florida. In 1904 she paid $11 dollars a month to rent a small house; she created classrooms by making furniture out of old crates and opened her own school!
She named it The Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls. When the school opened she had 5 students; within a year there were 30, growing over the next few years to over 250 students!
As well as teaching reading and writing, many of the subjects taught the girls practical skills that would enable them to find work and earn money when they left school. Such subjects included dressmaking, cooking, business skills and science!
One of the subjects that was eventually taught at the school was nursing, and so in 1911, and because the nearest hospital would only treat white people, Mary opened a hospital as well, which would treat her students and their families.
In 1931 the school merged with the local Cookman Institute boys school, and became the Bethune-Cookman University, which is still around today! Mary was president of the college twice, from 1923-42, and again from 1946-47.
By that time Mary Mcleod Bethune had become a well known name, especially in political circles. She had become close friends with the First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and in time became an advisor to her husband, the President of the USA, Franklin Roosevelt. She helped to ensure that black people’s needs were considered by the government, and continually pushed for civil rights.
Mary was involved in many public organisations, often holding key positions within them. In 1935 she founded the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), which brought together lots of groups which were working to help women and children.
When she started the NCNW she said,
“It is our pledge to make a lasting contribution to all that is finest and best in America, to cherish and enrich her heritage of freedom and progress by working for the integration of all her people regardless of race, creed, or national origin, into her spiritual, social, cultural, civic, and economic life, and thus aid her to achieve the glorious destiny of a true and unfettered democracy.”
During the Second World War, Mary argued that vital organisations like the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps and the American Red Cross should be integrated and allow black women to join.
Mary Mcleod Bethune’s accolades and achievements are so great in number that it would be impossible to list them all here. She dedicated her life to the struggle for equality, and to the realisation of her vision for equal access to education. She organised voter registration drives to encourage black people to use their vote, and led anti-lynching campaigns. From the classrooms of her school with it’s recycled furniture, to the offices of the White House, her passion and determination inspired all those who met her and transformed the world around her.
On the the date which would have been her 99th birthday a monument was revealed to commemorate her amazing life, which was paid for by the NCNW, the organisation she had founded. On it reads an inscription from her last will and testament which perfectly sums up the impact she had on so many people:
‘I leave you love. I leave you hope. I leave you the challenge of developing confidence in one another. I leave you a thirst for education. I leave you a respect for the use of power. I leave you faith. I leave you racial dignity. I leave you a desire to live harmoniously with your fellow men. I leave you a responsibility to our young people.’
Feature image is by the fantastic Julie Gough of the Ilustrated Women in History tumblr. See more of her brilliant work here.
Find out more:
Listen to this inspiring speech which Mary gave in 1939 titled “What Democracy Means to Me”
Much of Mary’s writing is still available to read and be inspired by today. Here is a collection of her essays and other documents.
There are several clips on YouTube where you can find out more about Mary’s life, here is one to start you off: