Equal parts educator, politician, and social visionary, Mary McLeod Bethune was one of the most prominent African American women of the first half of the twentieth century- and one of the most powerful. Known as the “First Lady of the Struggle,” she devoted her career to improving the lives of African Americans through education and political and economic empowerment, first through the school she founded, Bethune-Cookman College, later as president of the National Council of Negro Women, and then as a top black administrator in the Roosevelt administration
Mary Jane McLeod Bethune was born in Mayesville, SC on July 18, 1875. Bethune was born to former slaves Samuel and Patsy McLeod, and was raised in poverty. She was one of 17 children. Everyone in the family worked, and many toiled in the fields, picking cotton. When a missionary opened a school nearby for African-American children, Bethune became the only child in her family to go to school. This marked the beginning to a legacy that would change the lives of many. Bethune received a scholarship to Scotia Seminary, a school for girls in Concord, North Carolina. After graduating from the seminary in 1893, she went to the Dwight Moody’s Institute for Home and Foreign in Chicago and graduated from there. After, she completed her schooling up North she returned to the South and began her career as an educator.
Once returning to the South, Bethune found love and married Albertus Bethune in 1897. They became parents to Albert Mc- Leod Bethune. Albertus decided to leave the family, but the couple remained married until his death in 1918.
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. Bethune focused the school on educating girls, who had few other opportunities for education.
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. 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.
Although her life consisted of mostly work at her school, Bethune did much to contribute to American society at large. She still found time to make an impact on America’s history. Serving as president of the Florida chapter of the National Association of Colored Women for years, Bethune became the organization’s national leader, beating out reformer Ida B. Wells in 1924.
Bethune became a personal friend of Eleanor Roosevelt sometimes speaking on the same platform with her, and consulted with FDR on minority affairs. In 1935 Bethune became a special advisor to President Roosevelt on minority affairs. That same year, she also started up her own civil rights organization, the National Council of Negro Women. She served as vice-president of the NAACP from 1940 to 1955.
Bethune left the federal government after the NYA disbanded in 1944. She continued as president of the National Council of Negro Women until 1949 and, in that capacity, attended the founding conference of the United Nations. After her retirement she returned to Florida where she continued to speak and write about civil rights issues. She died in 1955. Bethune left behind a legacy that stretches across the United States of America. There are 39 sections of NCNW that keep her memory by Leading, Developing and Advocating for the black woman and her family. Bethune believed the only way to build up and better the African American community is through the hearts of the women.