Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955) – Educator, Public Administrator, Civil Rights Activist
Editor’s Note: This entry includes content from two contributors: the National Park Service and Jerry Marx, Ph.D., Associate Professor and Chair, University of New Hampshire School of Social Work. More information is in the Sources note.
Mary McLeod was born on July 10, 1875, near Mayesville, South Carolina. She was the fifteenth of 17 children born to former slaves Samuel and Patsy McLeod. Racism was prevalent in the post-Reconstruction South. At this time, African American children did not have many opportunities to attend school. Mayesville did not have a school for blacks until Emma Wilson, an African American teacher and missionary, founded the Trinity Presbyterian Mission School in 1882. In 1885, Mary became the first member of her family to attend the new school. For the next several years, she walked five miles to the one-room school. Impressed by Mary’s determination, Wilson chose her as the recipient of a scholarship to attend Scotia Seminary, a school for black women in North Carolina. The scholarship was provided by a teacher in Colorado who wanted to help an African American girl further her education.
After McLeod graduated in 1894, her benefactor paid for her to attend the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. When she completed the program the following year, McLeod was anxious to serve as a missionary in Africa. She was told by the Presbyterian Mission Board, however, that there were no missionary positions available for blacks in Africa. Although disappointed, McLeod soon acknowledged that “Africans in America needed Christ and school just as much as Negroes in Africa….My life work lay not in Africa but in my own country.”1 She returned to Mayesville, South Carolina, and began teaching at her former school.
Soon she moved to Augusta, Georgia, to teach at Haines Normal and Industrial Institute. There she worked with Lucy Laney, founder and principal of the school. Laney’s dedication to serving others inspired McLeod. In May 1898, she married Albertus Bethune, a clothes salesman, and moved to Savannah, Georgia. The couple had a son in February 1899 and shortly thereafter moved to Palatka, Florida, where Mrs. Bethune opened a mission school for poor African American children.
In 1904, the family moved to Daytona Beach, Florida, so Mrs. Bethune could open a school for the children of poor black laborers on the Florida East Coast Railroad. She found a rundown building and persuaded the owner to accept $1.50 as a down payment for the $11 per month rent. She rummaged for discarded supplies and found a barrel to use as a desk and crates for chairs. Of that time, she later wrote, “I haunted the city dump and the trash piles behind hotels, retrieving discarded linen and kitchen ware, cracked dishes, broken chairs, pieces of old lumber. Everything was scoured and mended.”2 In October 1904, the Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls opened with five students (ages 8-12) who paid 50 cents a week for tuition.
By 1906, the school had almost 250 students. Needing a bigger space, Bethune set out to raise money by selling homemade ice cream and sweet potato pies and putting on concerts. She even rang doorbells asking for donations. Bethune later remembered, “If a prospect refused to make a contribution, I would say, ‘Thank you for your time.’ No matter how deep my hurt, I always smiled. I refused to be discouraged, for neither God nor man can use a discouraged person.”3 Finally, with the help of a few wealthy businessmen, Bethune was able to purchase land and build a brick school.
Bethune believed that in order to advance, African Americans must first achieve financial independence. To do this, they must learn manual skills that would help them earn jobs. As a result, students studied sewing, cooking, broom making, weaving, housekeeping, etc., as well as academic subjects and religion. This educational philosophy was advanced by Booker T. Washington, a respected black leader who founded the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Bethune admired Washington and even had the privilege of receiving him as a visitor to her school.
In 1908, Bethune’s husband decided to return to South Carolina, leaving her and her son on their own. By 1916, the school offered a high school curriculum with training in nursing, teaching, and business. Despite Bethune’s relentless fundraising efforts, the school continued to struggle financially. In 1923, it merged with a college in Jacksonville, Florida, and became Bethune-Cookman College with almost 800 students. Bethune remained president of the school until 1942, when she resigned in order to focus on her national agenda.
Mary McLeod Bethune’s work as an educator ultimately led her to become an influential political activist. In 1909, she attended a conference of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (NACWC). The passionate speech she gave about her Florida school inspired the attendees to take up a collection. NACWC’s president, Mary Church Terrell, was so impressed that she predicted Bethune would one day become president of NACWC.
In the years that followed, Bethune assumed leadership positions in several African American women’s clubs. In 1924, Bethune fulfilled Terrell’s prediction by serving as president of the NACWC, the highest national position for a black woman at that time. As NACWC president, she led the organization to focus on social issues facing all women and society in general. The group lobbied for a federal antilynching bill and prison reform and offered job training for women.
Through her participation in national women’s groups, Bethune made many contacts and formed important friendships. As a member of the National Council of Women of the United States, she attended a luncheon hosted by Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s wife in New York in 1927. Bethune, the only African American woman at the event, soon began a close friendship with Mrs. Roosevelt. In 1928, Bethune was the only African American invited to take part in a conference on child welfare in Washington, D.C. In 1929, President Hoover asked her to serve on the National Commission for Child Welfare and the Commission on Home Building and Home Ownership. In both roles, she advised the government on the needs of African Americans.
Bethune’s influence continued to increase in the 1930s as the nation was plunged into the Great Depression. Her relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt proved even more important once Franklin Roosevelt became President of the United States. The “New Deal” that FDR promised Americans resulted in many programs designed to provide financial relief. Among these was the National Youth Administration (NYA), created in 1935 to ease unemployment among Americans ages 16 to 25. When First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt invited Bethune to join the NYA Advisory Committee, Bethune accepted the volunteer position and even moved to Washington, D.C. The NYA focused on education, job training, and employment. Young African Americans often suffered even more than whites because of the economic condition of their families prior to the Depression. Added to this was the fact that many white people, desperate for work, were taking over jobs in agriculture and domestic work previously held by blacks. To help combat these issues, Bethune encouraged black participation and leadership in NYA programs.
Impressed by Bethune’s work, FDR offered to put her in charge of a new department within NYA—the Division of Negro Affairs. Aubrey Williams, administrator of the NYA, encouraged her to accept, saying, “Do you realize that this is the first time in the history of America that an administrative government office has been created for one of the Negro race?”4 On June 24, 1936, Bethune officially joined the NYA Washington staff as director of the Division of Negro Affairs. As such, she became the first black woman to head a department of a federal agency.
The NYA position earned Bethune recognition and prestige. A group of newspapers named her one of the 50 most influential women in America and the NAACP awarded her their prestigious Spingarn medal for outstanding achievement by a black American. Eleanor Roosevelt stated, “She had a great deal of influence with the President, who had complete trust in whatever she told him as it affected the young people of her race while she was working in the NYA.”5 In 1936, as part of her effort to focus attention on racial inequality, she organized the Federal Council on Negro Affairs, which became known as the Black Cabinet. Comprised of African Americans who had been appointed to various government agencies, the group first met in August 1936 at Bethune’s apartment. They focused on how blacks could be better represented in the administration and how they could best benefit from New Deal programs. Bethune explained, “We have had a chance to look down the stream of the forty-eight states and evaluate the type of work and positions secured by Negroes. The responsibility rests on us. We can get better results by thinking together and planning together….Let us band together and work together as one big brotherhood and give momentum to the great ball that is starting to roll for Negroes.”6
Although the Black Cabinet did not operate in an official capacity, the group made studies and submitted reports to the federal government over the course of seven years. Within six months of being in Washington, Bethune had “managed to bring together for unified thought and action all of the colored people high in government authority.”7 By the mid 1930s, Bethune’s tireless energy and devotion had secured her reputation as a powerful figure in the fight for African American and women’s rights.
Reading 1 was adapted from Andrea Broadwater, Mary McLeod Bethune: Educator and Activist (Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 2003); Malu Halasa, Mary McLeod Bethune: Educator (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1989); Audrey Thomas McCluskey and Elaine M. Smith, eds., Mary McLeod Bethune: Building a Better World: Essays and Selected Documents (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1999); Elaine M. Smith, Mary McLeod Bethune and the National Council of Negro Women: Historic Resource Study (Alabama State University, 2003); and Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site: General Management Plan (Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, 2001).
1Malu Halasa,, Mary McLeod Bethune: Educator (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1989), 34.
2Andrea Broadwater, Mary McLeod Bethune: Educator and Activist (Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 2003), 37.
4Elaine M. Smith, Mary McLeod Bethune and the National Council of Negro Women: Historic Resource Study (Alabama State University, 2003), 73.
6As quoted in McCluskey and Smith, eds., 227.
Mary McLeod Bethune Council House: African-American Women Unite for Change
The soft velvet rug that carpets the staircase that leads to the office of the president has felt the tread of many feet—famous feet and humble feet; the feet of eager workers and the feet of those in need; and tired feet, like my own, these days. I walk through our headquarters, beautifully furnished by friends who caught our vision, free from debt! I walk through the lovely reception room where the great crystal chandelier reflects the colors of the international flags massed behind it—the flags of the world! I go into the paneled library with its conference table, around which so many great minds have met to work at the problems of the past years. I feel a sense of peace. Women united around The National Council of Negro Women, have made purposeful strides in the march toward democratic living. They have moved mountains. Our headquarters is symbolic of the direction of their going, and of the quality of their leadership in the world of today and tomorrow.1
Mary McLeod Bethune wrote these moving words upon her retirement as president of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) in 1949. Bethune had founded the organization in 1935 to give African American women a collective national voice at a time when they were typically shunned or ignored. As NCNW grew and gained respect, Bethune spearheaded the effort to establish a national headquarters in Washington, D.C. When a red brick townhouse in the Logan Circle area became available, Bethune quickly moved to purchase it. As the first headquarters of the National Council of Negro Women, this house played a prominent role in advancing the causes of African American women around the country. From 1943 until 1966, it provided the setting for countless meetings in which NCNW members discussed pivotal national events such as the integration of the military and public schools. Here also they created and implemented programs to combat discrimination in housing, healthcare, and employment.
Bethune and the members of NCNW faced challenges of race and gender with a tireless spirit and determination. Bethune helped give a voice to African Americans and created an organization that continues to fulfill her vision more than 50 years after her death. Today the former headquarters is administered by the National Park Service as the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site.
1As quoted in Audrey Thomas McCluskey and Elaine M. Smith, eds., Mary McLeod Bethune: Building a Better World: Essays and Selected Documents (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1999), 193.
Sources: National Park Service – www.nps.gov/nr/twhp/wwwlps/lessons/135bethune/135facts1.htm and www.nps.gov/nr/twhp/wwwlps/lessons/135bethune/135bethune.htm
By Jerry Marx, Ph.D., Associate Professor and Chair, University of New Hampshire School of Social Work
Mary McLeod Bethune, the daughter of former slaves, became head of the Division of African-American Affairs within the National Youth Administration in 1936. She used this position to advocate for the needs of African Americans during the Great Depression, directing a more equitable share of New Deal funding to black education and employment.50 Born July 10, 1875 in Mayesville, South Carolina, Bethune received a scholarship to Scotia Seminary for Negro Girls in Concord, North Carolina. She later attended the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago from 1894 to 1895. In 1904, she founded the Daytona Educational and Industrial School for Negro Girls in Daytona Beach, Florida, a school that later merged with the Cookman Institute of Jacksonville to become Bethune-Cookman College.
An educator, organizer, and policy advocate, Bethune became one of the leading civil rights activists of her era. She led a group of African American women to vote after the 1920 ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution (giving women the right to vote). In her position in the National Youth Administration, she became the highest paid African American in the federal government and a leading member of the unofficial “Black Cabinet” of the Roosevelt Administration. She later became the first African American woman to have a monument dedicated to her in Washington, D.C.
How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Marx, J. (2011). Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955) – Educator, public administrator, and Civil Rights activist. Social Welfare History Project. Retrived [date accessed] from https://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/people/bethune-mary-mcleod/