Mary McLeod Bethune: Black History Month Highlight

Mary McLeod Bethune was one of the most important Black educators, civil and women’s rights leaders, and government officials of the twentieth century.

Mary McLeod was born on July 10, 1875 in Mayesville, South Carolina, one of the last of seventeen children. After the Civil War, her mother worked for her former owner until they could buy the land they worked. By age nine Mary could pick a staggering 250 pounds of cotton a day.
As a child she would also accompany her mother to deliver “white peoples’” wash. On one such delivery, she was allowed into the white children’s nursery where she picked up a book. It was snatched away by a white child who sneered Mary couldn’t read. Deciding that the only difference separating white and Black people was the ability to read and write, Mary was inspired to learn.
Mary attended Mayesville’s one-room black schoolhouse and was the only child in her family to attend school, walking five miles roundtrip. Each day, she would come home and teach her family what she learned. Her teacher Emma Wilson helped Mary attend Scotia Seminary on a scholarship from 1888-1893. Mary then attended what is now the Moody Bible Institute, hoping to become a missionary to Africa. After being told that Black missionaries were not needed, she planned to teach African Americans at home.
Mary married Albertus Bethune in 1898, ultimately relocating to Florida. While in Florida, she was determined to start a school for girls. In October 1904, she rented a small house for $11 per month. She made benches and desks from discarded crates and acquired other necessary items through charity. The Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls was started by Mary for $1.50. The school bordered Daytona’s dump, so Mary and parents of the students raised money by selling sweet potato pies, ice cream, and fried fish to the crews who worked there.
Initially the school had six students and within a year enrollment grew to 30. Students made ink for their pens from elderberry juice, pencil lead from burned wood, and asked local businesses for furniture. Mary later wrote, “I considered cash money as the smallest part of my resources. I had faith in a loving God, faith in myself, and a desire to serve.”
Mary’s school started bright and early at 5:30 in the morning with a Bible study and did not end until 9 at night. They were taught home economics, science, business, math, English, and foreign languages. A donation of $62,000 by John D. Rockefeller and her friendship with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt helped give her entrée to a progressive network.
Not satisfied with only focusing on education, and learning there was no hospital to help people of color in Daytona Beach, Mary purchased a cabin near her school for $5,000 in 1911. The first black hospital in Daytona was opened with two beds, growing to twenty within a few years. Black and white doctors worked there, along with Mary’s student nurses. Both Black and white people in the community relied on help during various crises, including the 1918 influenza outbreak.
Mary was elected as national president of the National Association of Colored Women in 1924. When the NACW bought property at 13185 Vermont Ave in Washington, D.C., she led it to be the first Black-controlled organization with headquarters in the nation’s capital.
Mary enjoyed a close and loyal friendship with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, with Eleanor requesting a seat next to Mary at the 1938 Southern Conference on Human Welfare held in Birmingham, Alabama, even though Alabama still kept segregation laws on its books at the time. Mary would relay concerns from Black voters to the Roosevelts and advise the voters of the work being done on their behalf. She formed a coalition of Black leaders called the Federal Council of Negro Affairs, which came to be known as the “Black Cabinet.” It was an advisory board to the Roosevelt administration on issues facing Black persons in America.
Mary retired in Florida, where due to state segregation, Blacks were not allowed to visit the beach. Mary and several other business owners purchased properties along a two mile stretch of beach, which were sold to Black families. However, white families were welcomed to visit the waterfront at this beach.
Mary passed in 1955 of a heart attack. Her headstone bears the following inscription from her own Last Will and Testament, “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 finally, a responsibility to our young people.”