Mary McLeod Bethune was born in Mayesville, South Carolina, the 15th of 17th children. Her parents, Samuel and Patsy McLeod, and her oldest brothers and sisters, were slaves before emancipation when the Union won the Civil War. In her early years, she picked cotton and attended a Methodist mission school.
In 1888, Mary McLeod Bethune received a scholarship to Scotia Seminary in North Carolina. After graduating in 1893, she enrolled at what is now Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, intending to become a missionary to Africa. She discovered, however, that African Americans were not selected for such assignments.
Instead, Mary McLeod Bethune became a teacher in several Presbyterian schools in Georgia and South Carolina. She married Albertus Bethune in 1898, and their son was born in 1899. The marriage lasted about eight years; Albertus left the family but they remained married until his death in 1918.
Opening a School
Moving to Florida, and realizing that the workers being brought in for railway construction needed schools for their families, Mary McLeod Bethune opened the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute in 1904, with only a few students. She raised funds, ran the school, taught the students, and the school grew.
Mary McLeod Bethune focused the school on educating girls, who had few other opportunities for education. At first, the school focused on elementary classes, and later secondary courses. While first stressing industrial training and religious instruction, gradually the school moved to more academic subjects.
The school was supported in part by whites, including northerners with summer homes in the area, and such industrialists as James M. Gamble of Proctor and Gamble — who served as president of the school’s board of trustees from 1912 until his death — and Thomas H. White of the White Sewing Machine Company.
In 1911, after the school added nursing classes, Bethune also opened a hospital, because students could not be admitted to the local, whites-only, hospital. (The hospital closed in 1931.)
In the 1920s, Bethune arranged for the school’s affiliation with the Methodist Episcopal Church, and in 1923, merged it with the Cookman Institute for men in Jacksonville to become Bethune-Cookman College. The school began to focus on post-secondary courses, especially teacher training. The school, which had begun with a handful of students, grew to a peak of 1,000 students and won full accreditation — 1939 as a junior college and 1941 as a four-year college.
Mary McLeod Bethune served as President of the school from 1904 until 1942, with a brief return in 1946-47. But she was also involved in other organizations, extending her interest in opportunities for young African Americans.
Beyond the School
During World War I, Bethune helped pressure the American Red Cross to integrate, and she was active in anti-lynching campaigns.
In 1924, Mary McLeod Bethune was elected president of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). During her term, the organization bought a Washington, DC, building as a national headquarters, and brought the organization into affiliation with the larger and more powerful, though white-run, National Council of Women.
Mary McLeod Bethune was active in the Methodist Episcopal Church. She was a delegate from 1928 to 1944 to the general conference held each four years. She opposed the merger of the northern and southern conferences, because the southern conference segregated black members.
In 1935, Mary McLeod Bethune brought together black women from many different organizations, founding the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), and served as its president from 1935 to 1949. That same year, she was awarded the Springarn Medal from the NAACP, and she served as vice-president of the NAACP from 1940 to 1955.
From 1936 to 1951, Mary McLeod Bethune served as president of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, the black history organization founded by Carter G. Woodson.
African American New Deal Official and Activist
Mary McLeod Bethune served on presidential commissions under presidents Calvin Coolidge (child welfare) and Herbert Hoover (child welfare, home building and home ownership), and through her activities came to the attention of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor. She became a personal friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, sometimes speaking on the same platform with her, and consulted with FDR on minority affairs. She played a key role in establishing, in 1936, the Federal Committee on Fair Employment Practice, to help reduce discrimination or even exclusion of African Americans by the growing defense industry.
Roosevelt appointed Mary McLeod Bethune to a position in the New Deal administration. Her position, 1936-1944, with the National Youth Administration, evolved into a directorship of the Division of Negro Affairs. From this position, she was able to advocate for equal pay for black NYA employees. She was more successful in ensuring that participation in NYA programs by black youth was in proportion to their presence in the American population. She was also in charge of disbursing scholarship money to African American students, the only African American in the New Deal administration who disbursed funds. Her spot
Mary McLeod Bethune also helped bring together a group of African Americans in the informal Federal Council on Negro Affairs, the “black cabinet” that advised FDR.
Bethune also worked with the Democratic Party, urging the party to include black women in party offices, advising the party on minority issues, and urging African Americans to vote Democratic.
During World War II, Bethune pressured the Secretary of War to commission black women as officers of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC, later the Women’s Army Corps or WAC). She assisted Oveta Culp Hobby in identifying and selecting such candidates to represent about 10% of the total candidates selected.
After World War II
After the war, Mary McLeod Bethune was appointed by President Truman as a delegate and advisor on interracial relations at the San Francisco Conference, which led to the organization of the United Nations and writing of the United Nations Charter.
In her late years, Bethune continued working for equal opportunity in hiring and education, and against segregation in public accommodations.
By Jone Johnson Lewis