Mary McLeod Bethune was an educator and activist known as “The First Lady of The Struggle” due of her commitment to gain better lives for African Americans. She founded the National Council of Negro Women and served as president of the National Association of Colored Women.
Bethune was born Mary Jane McLeod in 1875 near Mayesville, South Carolina. She was one of 17 children born to Samuel and Patsy McLeod and the only one to be born free. Her older brothers and sisters had been enslaved until the Union won the Civil War and they were emancipated. Bethune’s mother worked for her former master, as well as doing laundry for white people. On one visit to deliver laundry, Bethune was able to go into a white child’s nursery where she picked up a book. The child took it from her, saying that she didn’t know how to read. Bethune was determined to learn, feeling that the only difference between her and the child was the ability to read and write.
Teaching a black person to write had been illegal in South Carolina since 1740, as it was seen as a mark of status and education was thought to lead to discontent and rebellion. By 1836, the public education of all African-Americans was strictly prohibited. Following the end of the Civil War and the legislation brought in through the 1868 state constitution, provisions began to be made for public education for all children, regardless of race. Bethune was able to realise her dream of learning to read and write when a missionary school was opened five miles from her house. She walked to school every day, and on her return would teach her parents and siblings what she had learnt.
In 1888, Bethune received a scholarship to attend Scotia Seminary (now Barber-Scotia College), a school for girls in Concord, North Carolina. Upon her graduation in 1893, she enrolled at Dwight Moody’s Institute for Home and Foreign Missions (also known as Moody Bible Institute) in Chicago. Bethune had intended to become a missionary to Africa, but found that African Americans were not permitted to undertake these assignments. Two years later, after completing her studies she returned to the South where she taught at several Presbyterian schools in Georgia and South Carolina including the Haines Institute in Augusta, Georgia. The institute was run by Lucy Craft Laney, and Bethune would adopt many of Laney’s ideas into her own educational philosophy.
Bethune believed that education was essential for racial advancement, and in 1904 she founded the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls in Daytona, Florida. She had focused her attention on educating girls as they had few opportunities for education. The school started out with five pupils, but quickly grew to more 250 students over the next years. In 1911, the school began teaching classes in nursing, and Bethune opened a hospital as her students were banned from the local, whites-only, hospital. Her hospital closed in 1931. Bethune secured funding for her school from white trustees like John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and James Gamble of Proctor & Gamble. In 1923, the school began to transition into college education and merged with the Cookman Institute of Jacksonville to Daytona to become the Bethune-Cookman College. The college The college became one of the few places that African-American students could pursue a college degree. Bethune served as president of the college until 1942.
In 1924, Bethune was elected president of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), during her term the organisation set up a national headquarters in Washington, DC and became affiliated with the National Council of Women. Bethune had been the Florida chapter president of the NACW from 1917 to 1925, during this time she was threatened by members of the Ku Klux Klan for her work, particularly in registering black voters.
In 1928, Bethune was invited to attend the Child Welfare Conference called by Republican President Calvin Coolidge. Two years later, President Herbert Hoover appointed her to the White House Conference on Child Health. In 1935, she became a special advisor to President Roosevelt on minority affairs. She also founded her own civil rights organisation, the National Council of Negro Women. The organisation was created to represent the many groups working on issues for African-American women. A year later, she became the director of the Division of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration. Bethune was tasked with helping young people find job opportunities and securing funds for youths. She was also an informal “race leader at large”, and part of the Black Cabinet, which organised the Federal Council on Negro Affairs. She became a trusted friend and adviser to President and Eleanor Roosevelt and was the first African American woman to be involved in the White House, assisting four different presidents.
In 1938, the NCNW hosted the the White House Conference on Negro Women and Children, demonstrating the importance of black women in democratic roles. During World War II, it fought for approval for black women to be commissioned as officers in the Women’s Army Corps and for the American Red Cross to become integrated. Bethune also served as a political appointee and the Special Assistant to the Secretary of War during the war. In 1945, Bethune was appointed by President Harry Truman as a delegate and advisor on interracial relations at the San Francisco Conference, which led to the organisation of the United Nations and writing of the United Nations Charter. She represented all women of colour, as no African nation or any other nation sent a black female delegate. In 1949, she was the first black woman granted an honorary degree by a college for white women from Orlando’s Rollins College.
In her later years, Bethune continued to work for equal opportunities in hiring and education and against segregation in public accommodations. She served as president of the National Association of Teachers in Colored Schools and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History; she also served on the boards of Planned Parenthood and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She retired to Florida, where she lived until her death in 1955. Before her death, she wrote her last will and testament, containing the words ”I leave you a thirst for education. Knowledge is the prime need of the hour” and closing with ‘If I have a legacy to leave my people, it is my philosophy of living and serving.“
In 1973, Bethune was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and in 1974, she became the first Black leader and the first woman to have a monument. The Bethune Memorial Statue was erected on public park land in Washington DC in honour of her remarkable contributions. In 1994, she became the only Black woman to be honoured with a memorial site in the nation’s capital when National Park Service acquired the NCNW’s former headquarters and Bethune’s last official residence. The site is now known as the Mary Mcleod Bethune Council House National Historic Site. The Council House now offers a variety of educational programs and exhibits. The NCNW now consists of over 39 national affiliates and over 240 sections, connecting more than 4,000,000 women to the organisation.