Mary McLeod was born in Mayesville, S.C. on July 10, 1875, two years before the end of Reconstruction. Her parents, Samuel and Patsy McLeod, were former slaves; Mary was the fifteenth of 17 children, most of her brothers and sisters were born in slavery. Once her family was situated from various plantations after slavery, her parents brought five acres of land and built a family home known as the "Homestead". Her mother continued to work for her former owner, and her father cultivated cotton on their land. Young Mary Jane, as was the custom in the cotton regions of South Carolina, was in the fields along with the adults. She entered a Presbyterian mission school when she was 11 years old. Later she attended Scotia Seminary, a school for African American girls in Concord, N.C., on a scholarship. She graduated in 1893; there she had met some of the people with whom she would work closely.
A U.S. educator born to former slaves, she made her way through college and in 1904 founded a school that later became part of Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Fla. She was president of the college from 1923?42 and 1946?47. Prominent in African-American organizations, particularly women's groups, she directed the Division of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration (1936?44).
Bethune worked for the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, and attempted to get him to support a proposed law against lynching. Although the Costigan-Wagner bill was not passed, they did raise more public awareness of the lynching issue. She was also a member of Roosevelt's Black Cabinet.
The time spent working in the cotton fields in Maysville helped shape Mary McLeod's work ethic and values regarding the importance of the use of the hands in labor and success. But Mary McLeod knew that God intended more for her than working in the cotton fields. She had a burning desire to learn how to read and write and was not happy until she was allowed to attend Maysville's one room school house. McLeod became the prize student of the teacher, Emma Jane Wilson, who recognized her outstanding skills. Miss Wilson recommended McLeod for a scholarship to attend Scotia Seminary near Concord, North Carolina. Upon graduation from Scotia in 1894, McLeod was awarded a scholarship to Dwight Moody's Institute for Home and Foreign Missions in Chicago. This rising young scholar had dreamed of going to Africa to minister to the spiritual and educational needs of her ancestors. However, this future "foremost woman of her race in the United States" was informed that there were "no openings for Negro Missionaries in Africa".
Mary McLeod was not one to have gone that far to be discouraged from her "missionary spirit-the spirit of doing things for others". Following a year at Moody's Institute she returned to Maysville to become Miss Wilson's assistant at the Presbyterian Mission School. Restless and unrequited in her ambition, she requested and received from the Presbyterian Board of Education an appointment at the Haines Institute in Augusta, Georgia. Here she honed her programmatic educational philosophy from the dynamic Lucey Craft Laney. It was at the Haines Normal and Industrial Institute that McLeod gained experience in a predominately female setting with primary, grammar, elementary normal and industrial courses. Laney also helped create a city hospital. The lessons McLeod learned from her one year's experience at Haines served her well when she established her own school.
Sometime between 1897 and 1898, McLeod was transferred by the Presbyterian Board to Kendell Institute at Sumpter, South Carolina. Here she continued to teach and render social services. But most importantly, she met Albertus Bethune, a former schoolteacher turned haberdasher. They were married in early May 1898; on February 3, 1899, she gave birth to Albertus McLeod Bethune Jr., in Savannah, Georgia. Their relationship vacillated between his desire to make money and her dream of continuing her mission work. Moreover, she now had an added responsibility-raising a son. This and mission work won out over settling down to homemaker.
While living in Savannah, Mrs. Bethune met Reverend C.J. Uggans, a Presbyterian pastor from Palatka, Florida. He offered her the opportunity to start a school in that city. At Palatka, she started a community school and worked in the jails two and three times a week, and in the sawmills and among the young people in clubs. Bethune stayed in Palatka five years, until she was encouraged to go to Daytona by Reverend S.P. Pratt who informed her that the area was fertile ground for her missionary spirit.
Having received an education at Maysville Presbyterian Mission School, Scotia Institute, and Moody's Bible Institute, having gained teaching experience at her primary school with her mentor Emma Wilson, and having arrived in Daytona Beach in 1904 and established the Daytona Literary and Industrial School for Training Negro Girls, Bethune labored the next twenty years, dividing her time and energy between making the school a success and building for herself a national reputation.
Mary McLeod Bethune became a public leader in the second decade of the twentieth century. She led a drive to register black voters in Daytona Beach which earned her a visit from the local Ku Klux Klan. Moreover during this period, Bethune was elected president of the State Federation of Colored Women's Clubs. During four years in office, she organized scattered clubs of black women throughout the Southeast to combat school segregation and the lack of health facilities among black children. In 1924, Bethune became the eighth president of the prestigious National Association of Colored Women's clubs (NACW). Among her accomplishments, during her first four years as president, was the acquisition of a national headquarters in the nation's capital.
Even greater recognition was bestowed upon her as a leader in education. In 1928, she attended the Child Welfare Conference called by President Calvin Coolidge. During Herbert Hoover's administration, she was again summoned to Washington to attend the National Commission for Child Welfare. According to biographer Rackham Holt, she was "the expert on educational boards, able to supply the facts on the Negro institutions" that received federal aid. Bethune likewise served on the Hoover Commission on Home Building and Home Ownership. In 1933 she was appointed to the Planning Committee established by the Federal Office of Education of Negroes in the spring of 1934. In addition, she was able to carry on her duties as president of her Daytona Beach school, and to organize the National Council of Negro Women in New York City. Bethune's increasing Involvement in national conferences on education, child welfare, and home ownership, as well as her reputation as a moving spirit in the black women's club movement, brought her into contact with a widening circle of influential people which eventually included the Roosevelts. Subsequently her recognition as a "leader" in the "black world", and her affiliation with the architects of the New Deal reform program, led to her service as an advisor on minority affairs in the Roosevelt administration.
Bethune's appointment as advisor on minority affairs in the National Youth Administration (NYA) is an interesting story. Undoubtedly, as a result of her activities in the women's movement in the 1920s and 1930s, she attracted the attention of Eleanor Roosevelt, who invited her to a luncheon at her New York home for representative leaders of the National Council of Women of the United States. It was at this social gathering that Bethune met Sara Delano (Mrs. James) Roosevelt, mother of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. According to Bethune, the friendship that grew from this initial meeting, "became one of the most treasured relationships of my life." Subsequently, she developed a "close" friendship with the Roosevelt women which probably led to her government appointments.
A series of events in the early 1930s led to a large meeting of black leaders later in the decade in Washington, D.C., to chart the social, political, and economic destiny of millions of black Americans. The events were the election of President Roosevelt, the appointment of Mary McLeod Bethune as director of minority affairs in the NYA, and the advent of the Great Depression. In 1937 and again in 1939, with the approval of Aubrey Williams, NYA executive director, Bethune issued calls for national conferences on the problem of black Americans. She established the conferences' theme when she wrote to the president that, "until now, opportunity (had) not been offered for Negroes themselves to suggest a comprehensive program for the full integration into the benefits and the responsibilities of American democracy." Delegates from around the nation sent recommendations to Roosevelt and to Congress, which they considered fundamental to resolving the problems facing "the Negro" and its youth. Many of these problems were compounded by the Depression and racism.
The two National Conferences were perhaps, the pinnacle of Bethune's public career. When the NYA was abolished in 1943, she returned to Daytona Beach to devote herself to her beloved community, family, and school.
Known for her reputation as an educator, public figure in government, and black women's club activist, Bethune was also a Business woman. While much of her energy was devoted to keeping the College solvent, she also provided a better living condition for her parents and an education for her son and grandson. Two axioms of Bethune's philosophy, "not for myself, but for others," and "I feel that as I give I get," were confessed to Charles S. Johnson. But she was not one to rely upon chance for her economic security. She held a one-fourth interest in the Welricha Motel at the Bethune Volusia Beach, Inc., a resort purchased in 1943 to provide recreational facilities for black Daytonans, was located on a two-and-one-half-mile stretch of oceanfront property jointly owned by Bethune, George W. Engram Sr., and Joseph Nathaniel Crooms and his wife, Wealthy.
Bethune also held capital stock in the Afro-American Life Insurance Company of Jacksonville and the Central Life Insurance Company of Tampa. Her association with the latter company dates back to 1923 when thirteen men, led by Tampa realtor and mortician Garfield D. Rodgers, offered Bethune the opportunity to join them in the insurance business. She held capital stock in the Pittsburgh Courier too.
In addition to these ventures, Bethune invested in real estate mainly in the neighborhood of the College. The revenue from these investments enabled her to have a comfortable life for herself and her son and grandson. Also, Bethune used extra earnings from selling insurance to pay off the mortgage on the "Homestead" in Maysville, and bought a modern home for her parents.
Bethune had been engaged in activities connected with World War II. As early as 1942, she lobbied the U.S. War Department to commission black women officers in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), later the Women's Army Corps (WAC). In 1944, she became the national commander of the Women's Army for National Defense, an all-black women's organization founded on November 15, 1942, by Lovonia H. Brown to seek "opportunities for service..., share in this fight for democracy..., and to provide an instrument through which our women could serve in this great crisis, with dignity and pride...". Their motto, "Working for Victory, Planning for Peace," was echoed in Bethune's greeting at its first national meeting: "Today,...we are aware of the profound and worldwide significance of this war and the postwar era, that is rapidly emerging." The actions taken by Bethune during the war demonstrated her patriotism for a nation willing to fight racism abroad, but not practicing democracy at home.
Bethune was also involved in the postwar "planning for peace." On April 25, 1945, W.E.B. DuBois, eminent sociologist at Atlanta University, Walter White of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Bethune were sent to San Francisco by President Harry S. Truman as consultants to the organizing meeting of the United Nations. At the conference, these eminent African Americans interacted with people of color from European colonial territories in Africa and Asia, supporting their demands for independence. Disappointed with the results of the deliberation, Bethune issued a statement that: "San Francisco is not building the promised land of brotherhood and security and opportunity and peace. It is building a bridge to get there by. We still have a long way to go."Bethune was invited by President Dumarsais Estime of the Republic of Haiti to celebrate the 1949 Haitian Exposition and became the first woman to be given the Medal of Honor and Merit, Haiti's highest award
. The "foremost woman of her race in the United States"; was again rewarded when President Truman asked her to represent the nation at the inauguration of President William V.S. Tubman of Liberia in 1949. Bethune finally realized her dream of going to Africa, not as a missionary, but as a representative of the U.S. government. She was awarded one of Liberia's most prestigious awards- the Commander of the Order of the Star of Africa. Caux, Switzerland, was Bethune's last overseas trip. In 1954 she attended the World Assembly for Moral Re-Armament, an organization which subscribed to the principles Bethune had lived by - "absolute honesty, absolute purity, absolute unselfishness, and absolute love."
One anonymous writer stated that Mary McLeod Bethune 'lived five full lives of service because her one life had been multiplied fruitfully and unwaveringly in five different phases of human endeavor.." These were: (1) : "the urgency of reform in the many affairs of her world, particularly those of her people", (2) "Bethune-Cookman College... the extension of her sacrifice and service", (3) "the National Council of Negro Women, uniting women of color to ... seek social and political involvement and progress", (4) Bethune-Volusia Beach... a lighthouse to recreation..." and, (5) "a spiritual-cultural heritage to generations yet unborn ... the Mary McLeod Bethune Foundation." Her home, "The Retreat" was made a National Historical Landmark By the National Park Services in 1975, a fitting recognition by the nation she served so well, and a people she helped so unselfishly.
Mary McLeod Bethune must have been gratified to see the political and social changes that occurred during her lifetime. Born into a family of ex-slaves, she lived long enough to witness the unraveling of the "separate but equal" doctrine by the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Plessy v. Ferguson
, on May 17, 1954. On this occasion she wrote in her weekly Chicago Defender column:There can be no divided democracy, no class government, no half-free county, under the constitution. Therefore, there can be no discrimination, no segregation, no separation of some citizens from the rights which belong to all.... We are on our way. But these are frontiers which we must conquer... We must gain full equality in education ...in the franchise... in economic opportunity, and full equality in the abundance of life.
Her statement reflected her firm belief in American democracy and included her lifelong agenda for African Americans-education for all, the franchise for all and economic opportunity for all. On May 18, 1955, Bethune died of a heart attack.
Alone in the cotton fields of Maysville, she saw the vision which demanded her life; alone she ... took that first train ride to Concord, N.C.; Scotia and larger development; alone she ferreted those early years which gave rise to Bethune-Cookman College; and though many now follow loyally ... she must stand at the head of those who grope eagerly for the vision that they may carry on faithfully long after she has gone. Traveling the treadmill of Service! But she is not tired; she is still dreaming.