Mary McLeod Bethune
Educator/Civil Rights Advocate
By Anne Adams
In the Eleanor Roosevelt mystery book series by Elliot Roosevelt the stories depict Eleanor Roosevelt as playing detective and solving murders. Also, though the plots and most of the people are fictitious, the author does use a few real persons. In the books the Roosevelts interact with Hollywood stars, well known contemporary political figures, and many social reformers of the era. Among these is Mrs. Mary McLeod Bethune.
In the stories, as in real life, she was a close friend and advisor to Eleanor Roosevelt and frequent White House visitor. In fact, Mrs. Roosevelt welcomed her advice and her friendship because of her total dedication to not just the cause of education but particularly to her own people. In a society when black Americans had few educational, social or political opportunities, Mrs. Bethune campaigned not just for them but also for all Americans.
Mary Jane McLeod was born in July, 1875, on a rice and cotton farm near Louisville, North Carolina as the youngest of a large family and in fact her parents and many of her older siblings had been born into slavery. When she was old enough she attended a local sponsored by the Presbyterian Board of Missions of Freedman. One particular teacher proved a great influence, and later arranged Mary Jane to attend what is now Scotia Seminary (now Barber-Scotia College) on a scholarship. She studied there from 1888 to 1894 and then attended the Dwight Moody’s Institute for Home and Foreign Missions in Chicago (now Moody Bible Institute) to train for being a missionary to Africa. When informed that black missionaries were not needed in that location, she decided to become a teacher.
She began her career as an educator by teaching at a Presbyterian Mission School near her birthplace in Mayesville, North Carolina in 1896, and then continued teaching at various teachers’ institutes from 1896 to 1898 when she met Albertus Bethune. They were married and at the suggestion of a visiting minister, she relocated to Palatka, Florida to begin a mission school. (Her husband left the family in 1907, and though they did not divorce, he moved away and died some years later).
Then in 1904 she moved to Daytona Beach to establish a school for black children. She chose the city because it was a tourist center and as such offered more economic opportunities than Palatka. The Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls began with five girls and Mrs. Bethune’s son Albert in a small house rented for $11 a month and furnished with benches and tables made out of discarded crates. To raise money for the school, which was located next to the town dump, Mrs. Bethune and the parents and other supporters baked pies and fried fish to sell to nearby construction workers, and solicited local businesses for used furniture donations. “I considered cash money as the smallest part of my resources,” Mrs. Bethune wrote later. “I had faith in a loving God, faith in myself and a desire to serve.”
Local black churches and other supporters donated what they could – money as well as supplies and labor and Mrs. Bethune also sought assistance from local wealthy women’s clubs. To further encourage community support she asked wealthy businessmen to serve on the school board.
The school schedule was rigorous. Students rose at 5:30 a.m. for Bible Study, and then began a class load, that included domestic skills as well as academics. Later the curriculum was expanded to include science and business and high school level classes in English, math and languages were added.
In 1923, the institution became a co-ed high school as a result of a merger with the Cookman Institute of Jacksonville, Florida and after becoming affiliated with the Methodist Church in 1924, it became a junior college in 1931. That same year the school became Bethune-Cookman College and by 1941, it developed into a four-year school offering liberal arts and teacher education. Dr. Bethune retired in 1942 due to health issues, and more recently with its first woman president assuming the office in 2004; it now is Bethune-Cookman University.
Mrs. Bethune traveled widely, seeking funds and support and her friendship with many society, business and political leaders of the time helped her secure grants. Besides her constant support of the college and her active role in education, Mrs. Bethune attained national prominence as an organizer and advocate in many other areas and from that came from her close friendship with President and Mrs. Roosevelt. The First Lady had a great concern for injustice and for the racial inequities of her time, and Mrs. Bethune offered her insight and advice for those concerns. In fact, Mrs. Roosevelt so respected Mrs. Bethune that she arranged to sit next to her friend at an Alabama conference, even though the segregation rules of the time did not permit it.
Mrs. Bethune formed a group of leaders from the black community into the Federal Council on Negro Affairs, which came to be known as the Black Cabinet. Their purpose was to advise the president and his administration on problems encountered by the black community as well as encourage the appointment of blacks to federal agencies. Though they were an informal group with no official status, the “Black Cabinet” served as a respected resource to advocate equal access to government information and resources.
During her time, Mrs. Bethune was an important voice to keep the nation informed about the activities and desires of black Americans. In 1938 she wrote: “If our people are to fight their way up out of bondage we must arm them with the sword and the shield and buckler of pride – belief in themselves and their possibilities, based upon a sure knowledge of the achievements of the past.” She later said: “Not only the Negro child but children of all races should read and know of the achievements, accomplishments and deeds of the Negro. World peace and brotherhood are based on a common understanding of the contributions and cultures of all races and creeds.”
Mrs. Bethune’s personal courage and dedication was unquestioned as she moved through an often segregated society. A dark complexioned woman of less than moderate height, with a matronly figure, she was memorable for her practice of carrying a cane, not because she needed it but for how it affected the viewer – giving her what she called “swank.”
A fellow Black Cabinet member described how she often attained her goals: “She had the most marvelous gift of effecting feminine helplessness in order to attain her aims with masculine ruthlessness.” However, one time when a local white man, disturbed by the school students passed in front of his home, threatened them with a rifle. Mrs. Bethune responded to his protests with courtesy and respect that he eventually turned his hostility into affection for protecting the children. “If anybody bothers old Mary,” he reportedly said, “I will protect her with my life.”
She died in 1955.
She was inducted into the National Woman’s Hall of Fame in 1973 in 1989 “Ebony” magazine listed her as among “Fifty Most Important Figures in Black US History. In 1974 a sculpture of her, depicted with two children, was established in 1974 in a Washington D.C. park and engraved with words from Mrs. Bethune’s “Last Will and Testament.” In encouraging others to emulate her life’s goals she wrote: “I leave you love…hope…the challenge of developing confidence in each other…a thirst for education…a respect for the use of power…faith…racial dignity…a desire to live harmoniously with your fellow men. I leave you, finally, a responsibility to our young people.”