Educator, entrepreneur, political activist, community leader, single mother: Mary Jane McLeod Bethune committed her life to improving education and opportunity for black Americans, particularly women, in the United States.
She was born into Jim Crow America, a period of violence and segregation targeted at black Americans in the South following the Civil War. It continued throughout Bethune’s lifetime and she fought tirelessly against it. This devotion to securing integration and equality for black lives would eventually stretch beyond the borders of her county, state and nation.
So, who was Mary Jane McLeod Bethune, and what exactly is she remembered for?
Mary Jane McLeod was born on 10 July 1875 in a small cabin near Mayesville, South Carolina. She was the 15th of Samuel and Patsy McLeod’s 17 children, and unlike her parents and all but one of her siblings, Bethune was born free of slavery.
Patsy continued working for her former owner after the Civil War while Samuel farmed cotton. However, the McLeods were eventually able to buy their own farm and by age 9 Bethune could pick 250 pounds of cotton a day.
Born free and encouraged by her deeply religious parents, Bethune soon left the fields to attend Maysville School, a Presbyterian Mission School for African Americans. She was the only McLeod child to go to school and walked 5 miles each day to and from classes.
But it was while studying on a hard-won scholarship at Scotia Seminary for Girls that Bethune recognised the autonomy education gave women. As she prepared to leave study, Bethune resolved she would become a Christian missionary in Africa.
Yet with her experience of learning among the black population of South Carolina, Bethune reconciled there was enough need for her mission right on her doorstep.
In 1894, aged 23, Mary married fellow teacher Albertus Bethune. The pair settled in Daytona, Florida with their son, Albert. Daytona at the turn of the century was full of promise: the city had become a popular tourist destination and businesses thrived.
Eventually, in 1904, Bethune opened the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls. In October, she began by renting a small house for $11 a month and made benches and desks from discarded crates. The school opened with just 6 students: 5 girls and Bethune’s son Albert.
Bethune, the students’ parents and local church members helped fund the school by making and selling sweet potato pies and ice cream to crews working at the dump next door. Students even made ink for pens from elderberry juice when money was tight.
Bethune later wrote, “I considered cash money as the smallest part of my resources. I had faith in a loving God, faith in myself, and a desire to serve.”
A few years later in 1907, her tumultuous marriage ended. Albertus deserted the family and returned to South Carolina while Bethune listed herself as a widow in the 1910 census despite her estranged husband not dying until 1918.
A teacher and now single mother, Bethune was also a savvy businesswoman. Always seeking donations to keep her school open, Bethune was fundraising wherever she went. Critical to Daytona Normal’s survival was her ability to court Daytona’s wealthy white population.
Influential white men were invited to sit on the school’s board of trustees and donors would eventually include John D. Rockefeller, who gave $62,000, as well as Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, providing access to a powerful and progressive network of supporters.
The popularity of Daytona Normal also helped Bethune negotiate its merging with the Methodist Cookman Institute for Men in 1923. She became Bethune-Cookman College’s first president from 1923 to 1942 (and again in 1946-1947), one of America’s few female college presidents at the time.
Bethune’s resolve was tested during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Alongside the civil rights advocate Blake R. Van Leer, Bethune lobbied alongside other Florida institutions for federal funding. Thanks to their tireless efforts, the Bethune-Cookman School stayed open throughout the Depression.
Alongside establishing and running the Bethune-Cookman College, Bethune’s continued work with local, county and national educational boards cemented Bethune’s status as a leader of the black community and civil rights movement.
In 1924 she was elected President of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). As the NACW’s leader, Bethune advocated moving beyond traditional self-help and instead agitating for integration and attacking racial discrimination within the Federal government.
However, Jim Crow had a tight hold on the US government and, frustrated by the NACW’s internal politics, Bethune left in 1935. She founded the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) and its flagship publication, Aframerican Women’s Journal, with an explicit civil rights focus.
Bethune had also become a Democratic Party supporter in the 1930s, and her friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt had also provided Bethune with proximity to the President, who charged her in 1936 with joining the National Youth Administration (NYA).
In 1939, she became Director of Negro Affairs. Bethune used her platform so that the NYA employed hundreds of thousands of young African Americans and established a fund supporting some 4,000 black students through higher education.
Political activist: The Black Cabinet
Facilitated by her close relationship with the First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Bethune had become part of an informal committee advising the President on issues the Black American community faced. She called it ‘The Black Cabinet’.
The Black Cabinet worked on matters including welfare, trying to ban the poll tax of the South, anti-lynching legislation, creating jobs for black Americans and during World War Two, ending the exclusion of black Americans in the armed forces and defence industry.
Exemplifying her belief that “we must not fail America and as Americans, we must not let America fail us”, Bethune served as a special assistant to the Secretary of War for the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. She was responsible for recruiting black women for army officer training and established a school to do so.
After the war’s end and the death of President Roosevelt, Bethune served as an associate consultant to help draft the United Nations charter. Her focus was enshrining the rights of colonised populations, yet Bethune left the conference feeling deeply let down. The concessions of freedom, human rights and self-determination for colonised peoples she demanded had not been a priority, and her demands were left unanswered.
Bethune died of a heart attack on 18 May 1955, just 7 months before the Montgomery Bus Boycott began which would secure a momentous victory for the Civil Rights movement. In the years preceding her death, Bethune was recognised across the world for her contributions to black liberation.
In 1949, she was invited to Haiti to receive their highest civilian honour, the Medal of Honour and Merit, and while representing President Truman in Liberia, she received Commander of the Order of the Star of Africa.
Bethune was the first black woman to have a national monument dedicated to her in Washington DC, and since 1955, schools, roads and parks have been named in her honour. Nonetheless, Mary Jane McLeod Bethune’s greatest legacy remains Bethune-Cookman University, a symbol of empowerment through education.