Celebrating Black Female Freedom Fighters: Mary McLeod Bethune

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Learn more about Mary McLeod Bethune in this collection of essays and documents available at national booksellers.

Before the great works of Dorothy Height came Mary McLeod Bethune, the “First Lady of the Struggle.” Born in 1875 to former slaves during the tale end of the Reconstruction Era, this leading educator and civil rights activist would go on to found the National Council of Negro Women and the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls which would later become the same Bethune-Cookman University in which 3,700 students are enrolled today.

Up until the age of nine, Ms. Bethune picked cotton with the rest of her family as they, like so many other Blacks in that time, were still financially tied to ex-slaveowners through sharecropping. Additionally, there were no local schools for Black children in operation. But once one such missionary school opened, out of 17 siblings, Ms. Bethune was the sole child given the opportunity to attend school. Her parents simply could not afford to send any others. She walked five miles to school each day, absorbing all of the curriculum she could, and returned home to teach her family what she learned.

“Faith is the first factor in a life devoted to service. Without it, nothing is possible. With it, nothing is impossible.” -Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955)

As Ms. Bethune grew, she originally desired to do missionary work in Africa but when her application was denied, she went into education. And we should all be thankful for this pivotal moment in her history because the work she did in America was monumental.

During her work has an educator over the next decade, she met and married fellow teacher Albert Bethune and relocated to Florida where they had a son. Ms. Bethune believed in the power of education to improve the lives of Blacks and thus opened the Daytona Beach Literary and Industrial School for Training Negro Girls in 1904. She separated from her husband in 1907, and as a single parent, was further determined to see to the school’s success because she needed to be able to independently support her son.  With Ms. Bethune serving as president, the school’s enrollment ballooned from five to 250 over the next few years.

When the school eventually merged with Cookman Institute for Men in the 1920s to become a coed institution, Ms. Bethune remained the president of Bethune-Cookman College. The college (which eventually became a university) was one of the few places in the nation where Black students could earn a college degree. Its first degree was issued in 1943.

Even as Ms. Bethune directed the college, she simultaneously led voter registration drives in the 1920s after women gained suffrage rights. She was invited by President Calvin Coolidge to participate in a child welfare conference. President Herbert Hoover appointed her to the committee on child health and she also served on the Commission on Home Building and Home Ownership. She became president of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs in 1935. She founded and was the president of National Council of Negro Women also in 1935. She was active in transitioning black voters from the GOP to the Democratic Party during the Great Depression. She was named by President Franklin Roosevelt the director of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration and was a close friend to Eleanor Roosevelt. She also led President Franklin’s “Black Cabinet.”

Also….

Ms. Bethune fought to end lynching and discrimination, and organized the Problems of the Negro and Negro Youth Conference. She became the vice president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons in 1940 (and held the position until her death in 1955).  She was a member of the advisory board which created the Women’s Army Corps in 1942 and ensured its racial integration. In 1945,  she was appointed by President Harry S. Truman to the founding conference of the United Nations. And all while she contributed articles to the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier which were two Black newspapers.

Her various honors include being an inductee in the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1973, having several schools across the nation named for her and the designation of her last residence as an historic site. Mary McLeod Bethune, like so many of the women who will be discussed in this blog this month should be another one of those names that automatically come to mind whenever someone thinks “Social Visionary” or “American Hero.”

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