"Our aim must be to create a world of fellowship and justice where no man's skin color or religion is held against him. `Love thy neighbor' is a precept that could transform the world if it were universally practiced."
Educator Mary McLeod Bethune championed interracial harmony and equal opportunity for Black Americans. She was born on July 10, 1875, in Mayesville, South Carolina, and died on May 18, 1955, in Daytona Beach, Florida.
Mary McLeod Bethune was a member of the generation of Black-American leaders who lived and worked in an era that began in the grim days after the Civil War and ended at the dawn of a new age of militancy. In many ways, she served as a bridge between the beliefs of conservatives like Booker T. Washington and more militant figures like W. E. B. Du Bois. Like Washington, she agreed that the most pressing problem facing Black Americans was obtaining job skills that would lead to economic success. But like Du Bois, she felt that civil and social inequities had to be remedied at the same time economic ones were; she could not accept Washington's optimistic view that Whites would one day grant civil rights to Blacks as a "reward" for demonstrating their worth to society. "The Freedom Gates are half-ajar," she declared not long before her death. "We must pry them fully open."
Mary Jane McLeod Bethune was the fifteenth of seventeen children born to former slaves Samuel and Patsy McIntosh McLeod, who eked out a living as farmers on a small plot of land purchased from the family to whom Patsy McLeod had once belonged. Like the rest of her brothers and sisters, Mary went to work picking cotton at a very early age. Attending school was out of the question, for there were no public institutions nearby that accepted Black students. When Mary was nine, however, she began attending a new Presbyterian Church mission school about five miles from the McLeod farm. "It was a humble one-room school," she later recalled. "The blackboard was only painted cardboard. But that didn't matter. For there I saw letters make words. I was reading! At home, I gathered the other children around me to teach them what I knew."
At the age of twelve, Mary graduated from the mission school and, with the help of a scholarship, was able to continue her education at Scotia Seminary, a Presbyterian facility in Concord, North Carolina. There she spent the next seven years taking high school- and junior college-level courses. Eager to serve as a missionary in Africa, she obtained another scholarship for study at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. Upon completing her training in 1895, however, twenty-year-old Mary was rejected for missionary service on the grounds that she was too young. Disappointed and discouraged, she headed back home to contemplate how else she might be of service to others.
Over the next few years, Mary taught at several small schools for Black Americans throughout the South, including one in Sumter, South Carolina, where she met and married a fellow teacher named Albertus Bethune. Eventually relocating with him to Savannah, Georgia, she gave birth to a son and briefly retired from teaching, then moved restlessly from one mission school to another in search of a place she felt she could do the most good.
In 1904, Bethune heard that a major railroad construction project under way along the east coast of Florida had attracted hundreds of Black men (many accompanied by their families) hoping to find work. In most instances, they lived there in squalor and poverty. Crime and racial violence were commonplace. Learning that conditions were especially desperate around the resort town of Daytona Beach, Bethune visited the area to see for herself. There she encountered widespread ignorance and indifference to her suggestion that she establish a school for the workers' children.
Undaunted, Bethune resolved to find a way to provide an education to those she knew might never have another opportunity to go to school. That September, she rented a dirty, ramshackle frame building in Daytona Beach with money she earned by making sweet potato pies, ice cream, and fried fish and selling them to construction crews. She scrubbed and scoured until it was clean, then turned her attention to gathering equipment and supplies. Too poor to buy anything, she instead made ink from the juice of wild elderberries, fashioned pencils out of slivers of charred firewood, and scrounged through the garbage of the city's best hotels to retrieve discarded kitchenware, linens, broken furniture, and other items. She also went door to door in residential neighborhoods and took her pleas to churches, clubs, and other groups, begging for whatever people could spare. "I considered cash money as the smallest part of my resources," she later wrote. "I had faith in a loving God, faith in myself, and a desire to serve."
On October 3, 1904, the doors of the Daytona Normal and Industrial School for Negro Girls opened for classes with a grand total of six students--five girls and Bethune's son. The emphasis was on practical knowledge: besides reading, writing, and arithmetic, students were taught cooking, sewing, and other vocational skills. In less than two years, the school grew to about 250 students (some of whom also boarded there) and a faculty of five.
But with success came a need for more space. Financially, it was a constant struggle just to keep the existing school afloat; Bethune still sold food to construction crews and salvaged junked items, and a student choir earned a little money by giving concerts in and around Daytona Beach. Eventually, Bethune managed to scrape together a down payment on thirty-two acres of swamp and dump property surrounding her school building. She and her students then cleaned up the mess and, thanks to secondhand material and labor furnished mostly by her students' fathers in exchange for tuition credit, a building known as Faith Hall rose on the reclaimed land in 1907.
The school grew slowly but steadily after that, aided in large part by donations Bethune secured from nationally prominent businessmen and philanthropists who were impressed by her determination and vision. Through the years, several other halls were built, and the school's offerings expanded to include adult education programs and various exhibits, shows, and even contests to encourage nearby residents to keep their houses and yards clean and neat. The scramble for funds also continued on a regular basis; for example, students planted and sold vegetables and raised livestock to provide the school with a steady income.
In the early 1920s, Bethune decided to safeguard the future of her dream by affiliating the Daytona Industrial and Normal School with the Methodist Episcopal Church. The church then merged it with the Cookman Institute, a Jacksonville, Florida-based boys' school, forming what came to be known in 1928 as Bethune-Cookman College. Bethune stayed on as president until 1942, but during the 1930s her other interests and activities increasingly took her off campus. A dynamic speaker and prolific contributor to magazines and newspapers, she was in demand as an authority on education and civil rights issues. (She was especially outspoken on the topic of making it easier for Black Americans to exercise their right to vote, which she believed was the mark of true freedom.) She also served as a vice-president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Urban League's commission on interracial cooperation.
Bethune spent much of her time during this period in Washington, D.C. It was there, for example, that she established and headed the National Council of Negro Women in 1935 and gained national prominence as an advisor on minority affairs to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. (She also became close friends with Eleanor Roosevelt, and they sometimes made appearances together on behalf of causes they both supported.) Her government service began in 1936, when the president appointed her director of Negro affairs for the National Youth Administration, a position in which she supervised the development of recreational facilities and vocational training programs for young Black men and women. On the eve of World War II, when the booming defense industry refused to hire Black workers, she persuaded President Roosevelt to create the Federal Committee on Fair Employment Practice, which outlawed such discrimination. During the war itself Bethune worked as special assistant to the secretary of war and was charged with selecting candidates for the first officers' training school for the Women's Army Corps. In 1945, as a special representative of the Department of State, she traveled to San Francisco to attend the organizing conference of the United Nations.
As she headed into her seventies, Bethune ignored repeated warnings from her doctor urging her to slow down. Instead she kept busy literally until her dying day; just two months before her eightieth birthday, she collapsed and died of a heart attack after putting in a full day of work at home in Daytona Beach. She was buried on the grounds of her beloved college, which at the time of her death in 1955 boasted an enrollment of more than one thousand and a faculty of one hundred. Today, Bethune-Cookman College has over two thousand students and nearly two hundred faculty members.
In one of her last published articles, a piece written for Ebony magazine, Bethune reflected on what she thought would be her legacy to Black Americans. Among the things she cited were love, hope, faith, courage, racial dignity, a thirst for education, and a desire to live together harmoniously. But most of all, she noted, "If I have a legacy to leave my people, it is my philosophy of living and serving. As I face tomorrow, I am content, for I think I have spent my life well."
- Halasa, Malu, Mary McLeod Bethune, Chelsea House, 1989.
- Holt, Rackham, Mary McLeod Bethune, Doubleday, 1964.
- Peare, Catherine Owens, Mary McLeod Bethune, Vanguard Press, 1951.
- Christian Century, "Mrs. Bethune's Death Marks Changing Negro Leadership," June 8, 1955, p. 676; "The Miracle Years of Mrs. Bethune," February 1, 1956, pp. 140-141.
- Ebony, "My Last Will and Testament," August, 1955. Reprint, November, 1990, pp. 128-134 (opening quote).
- Journal of Negro History, "Mary McLeod Bethune," October, 1955, pp. 393-395.
- Newsweek, "Faith in a Swampland," May 30, 1955, p. 47.
- New York Times, May 19, 1955, p. 29.
- Reader's Digest, "An Unforgettable Character: Mary Bethune," February, 1952, pp. 146-151.
- Time, "Matriarch," July 22, 1946, p. 55.