Mary Bethune (born Mary Jane McLeod; July 10, 1875 – May 18, 1955), known as “First Lady of the Struggle”, was an African American educator and champion of rights for women and children, and advisor to five United States presidents.
Mary was born in Mayesville, South Carolina, the daughter of former slaves, on a little farm. Her parents were poor, and she worked in the fields with them from age 5 until age 10. By age 9, she could pick 250 pounds of cotton a day.Despite their freedom, Mary’s mother Patsy still did laundry for her former owner and Mary often accompanied her mother to deliver the wash. Reportedly, one day she went into the white children’s nursery at the plantation house, after helping her mother deliver laundry. She was fascinated with the toys, and picked up a book – but the white child took it from her, saying she couldn’t possibly know how to read. This fired Mary’s determination – she decided the only difference between her and white children was education. She was able to enroll in the one room Trinity Presbyterian school. There she learned to read, and later said that the whole world opened to her through books.
She was the fifteenth of seventeen children in her family. For many years after the end of slavery, Mary’s family continued to work as sharecroppers on the plantation of former master William McLeod until they could afford to buy a small farm and erect a log cabin on it.
Mary studied at the Trinity Presbyterian school for four years and graduated at the age of eleven. With her studies completed and no means to further her education, Mary returned to her family’s farm to work in the cotton fields.Mary worked hard, helping her parents in the fields, doing laundry, helping with her brothers and sisters, but always made time to keep reading, when books could be found. Still working a year after graduation, Mary fretted about missing additional educational opportunities – a dream that now seemed hopeless. Ever since the McLeod family’s only mule had died, which had forced Mary’s father to mortgage the farm to buy another mule, money in the McLeod household had been even scarcer than before.
Luckily for Mary, a Quaker teacher in Denver, Colorado named Mary Chrisman had read about the blacks-only Trinity Presbyterian school. As a sponsor of the Northern Presbyterian Church’s project to educate former slave children, Chrisman offered to pay tuition for one student to receive a higher education – Mary was chosen.
In 1888, 13-year-old Mary traveled to Concord, North Carolina to attend the Scotia Seminary for Negro Girls. When she arrived at Scotia, Mary stepped into a world in sharp contrast to her Southern upbringing, with white teachers sitting, talking, and eating with black teachers. At Scotia, Mary learned that through cooperation, whites and blacks could live in harmony. She graduated at 15, obtaining a teacher’s certificate. Her parents were too poor to attend the graduation. Again, due to Mary Chrisman, she went on to Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. During her studies, she worked in Chicago’s slums feeding the hungry, assisting the homeless with shelter, and visiting prisons. She intended to become a missionary. Mary graduated from Moody in 1895 and immediately went to New York to meet with the Presbyterian Church’s mission board. The 19-year-old was devastated when she was told “coloreds” could not qualify as African missionaries.
As a young African American with an education, but few options, she returned home to Mayesville, South Carolina, and helped her former teacher at Trinity Presbyterian. But Mary was not one to just give up. After a year, she took another teaching job at a new school for colored children near Atlanta. In her work there, she came to realize that mission work was needed just as much in America as in Africa. In prayer and thought, she began to consider founding her own school.
Among Mary’s many gifts and abilities, she was also a talented singer. The Presbyterian mission board offered her a chance at Sumter, South Carolina’s Kindell Institute, and Mary took it. She joined the local church, and while singing in the choir, met another teacher, Albertus Bethune. Now twenty three, Mary and Albertus fell in love, and married. They decided to move to Savannah, Georgia, but couldn’t find teaching jobs. Albertus began selling men’s wear. Mary became pregnant, and gave birth to Albertus Jr. in February 1895. For some women, the story would end there – but not Mary.
A minister convinced the couple to move to Palatka, Florida. Mary began selling life insurance (later, in 1923, she founded a life insurance company and became its CEO). A railroad was to be built in northern Florida in 1904, and Mary saw her chance – jobs would be coming to the area, new families with children needing school. On October 4, 1904, 29-year-old Mary McLeod Bethune opened the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute with only $1.50 ($41.50 in today’s money) and five 8 to 12-year-old girls, and her son. Each child paid fifty cents a week for a uniform and to receive rigorous training in religion, business, academics, and industrial skills.
Sadly, Albertus did not support Mary in her vision to educate the less fortunate. Quarrels broke out, and Mary was determined. In 1907, Albertus ended the marriage and returned to South Carolina, making Mary a single mother of a twelve year old son.
But Mary was undaunted. Mary McLeod Bethune’s goal was to create a top-rated school, where students would acquire requisite skills that prepared them for life. She started agricultural training for students to grow and sell their own food.
Accepting everyone who wanted education caused major overcrowding; however, Bethune was determined to keep her school afloat. She purchased more property from a dumpsite’s owner for $250, paying $5 a month. Students hauled junk away from the place they named “Hell’s Hole.”
Bethune swallowed her pride and sacrificed a hot temper to endure many affronts to her dignity by soliciting aid from rich whites. Tenacity paid off, however, when James Gamble (of Proctor and Gamble) paid to build a brick schoolhouse. In October 1907, Mary moved her school to the four-story building she named “Faith Hall.”
People were often moved to give due to Bethune’s powerful speaking and passion for black education. Specifically, the owner of White Sewing Machines made a large donation to build a new hall and included Bethune in his will. Mary went to New York, and obtained grants from Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, and Guggenheim.
Not limiting herself to education, Mary was outraged at the lack of medical care for young black children. She convinced Andrew Carnegie to donate money for a 20 bed hospital, named in honor of her mother, Patsy.
Even at this time, Mary was not above hopping on her bicycle, going door to door to raise money for her school, once receiving $80,000 from a generous donor.
Still, the school struggled, and in 1929, at the outbreak of the depression, it merged with Cookman Institute for Colored Men in Jacksonville, becoming Bethune-Cookman Institute. Mary served until 1942 as the first female black college president.
When the amendment passed allowing women to vote, Mary was overjoyed, and tirelessly worked to register women to vote and exercise their rights. This got her in trouble with the local Ku Klux Klan, earning threats of violence and death. Mary wasn’t to be stopped, though.
Her efforts to raise money and better the situation of black women and children earned her the notice of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and his wife Eleanor. Eleanor and Mary became lifelong friends. During his term Roosevelt sought her advice on matters of the poor, as did Coolidge. Roosevelt created several programs for blacks and appointed Bethune as the Advisor of Minority Affairs. In June 1936, Bethune became the first black woman to head a federal office as director of the Division of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Association (NYA). Truman continued to seek out Bethune, and in 1945, named her as the only black female delegate to the opening ceremonies of the United Nations.
On May 18, 1955, 79-year-old Mary McLeod Bethune died of a heart attack and was buried on the grounds of her beloved school. A simple marker reads, “Mother.”
In 1974, a sculpture of Bethune teaching children was erected in Washington DC’s Lincoln Park, making her the first African American to receive such an honor. The United States Postal Service issued a stamp commemorating Bethune in 1985.
Bethune-Cookman University continues today as her lasting legacy.