Mary McLeod Bethune

Mary McLeod Bethune bigraphy, stories - Educator, civil rights activist

Mary McLeod Bethune : biography

10 July 1875 – 18 May 1955

Mary Jane McLeod Bethune (July 10, 1875 – May 18, 1955) was an American educator and civil rights leader best known for starting a school for African-American students in Daytona Beach, Florida, that eventually became Bethune-Cookman University and for being an advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Born in South Carolina to parents who had been slaves and having to work in fields at age five, she took an early interest in her own education. With the help of benefactors, Bethune attended college hoping to become a missionary in Africa. When that did not materialize, she started a school for African-American girls in Daytona Beach. From six students it grew and merged with an institute for African-American boys and eventually became the Bethune-Cookman School. Its quality far surpassed the standards of education for African-American students, and rivaled those of schools for white students. Bethune worked tirelessly to ensure funding for the school, and used it as a showcase for tourists and donors, to exhibit what educated African-Americans could do. She was president of the college from 1923 to 1942 and 1946 to 1947, one of the few women in the world who served as a college president at that time.

Bethune was also active in women’s clubs, and her leadership in them allowed her to become nationally prominent. She worked for the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, and became a member of Roosevelt’s Black Cabinet, sharing the concerns of black people with the Roosevelt administration while spreading Roosevelt’s message to blacks, who had been traditionally Republican voters. Upon her death, columnist Louis E. Martin said, "She gave out faith and hope as if they were pills and she some sort of doctor."Martin, Louis E. (June 4, 1955) "Dope ‘n’ Data" Memphis Tri-State Defender; p. 5. Her home in Daytona Beach is a National Historic Landmark, her house in Washington, D.C. in Logan Circle is preserved by the National Park Service as a National Historic Site,National Park Service Retrieved on January 11, 2008. and a sculpture of her is located in Lincoln Park in Washington, D.C. Cultural Tourism DC website. Retrieved on January 11, 2008.

Career as a public leader

According to Wesley (1984), the club officially became the State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs on October 27, 1927, in Tampa, Hillsborough County, Florida. The Florida Clubwomen worked: 
  1. To promote civic movements
  2. To advocate the cause of welfare units that are organized for moral, religious, social, literary and inter-racial advancement or progress
  3. To make plans of recreation for young women for their religious, civic, moral, social and industrial uplift
  4. To encourage the organization of clubs where such organizations do not exist
  5. To assist local clubs or club women in becoming more thoroughly acquainted with various kinds of community work
  6. To foster and promote the organization of women’s clubs in all parts of the State of Florida for the general and good betterment of humanity.Wesley, p.

In 1916, Bethune became president of the Florida Federation and in two decades, under her leadership, the Federation grew to include more than 60 clubs, in at least 20 cities, with at least 13 members in each.Wesley, p. McCluskey and Smith, p. It was also under her tenure that Mary’s commitment to education was once again demonstrated. The Federation and Mary bought and led a home for delinquent girls in Ocala, Florida.Wesley, p. . The Home for Delinquent Girls “offered an alternative to incarceration with adults for up to twelve young black girls and women”. Hanson, 2003, p. 98. According to Hanson the four focal areas of Bethune’s leadership comprised internal organization, American involvement in World War I, women’s suffrage, and Interracial Cooperation.

The work that Bethune was able to accomplish under the Florida Federation is incredibly extensive, but not surprising. Within each focal area there were numerous accomplishments. According to Hanson, Bethune organized the Florida Club to operate in a “businesslike” mannerHanson, p. 96. The Club produced a newsletter, drafted a constitution, and held club conventions and was politically active. Bethune was a “field representative for black women on the Women’s Committee of the Council of National Defense” and through this role the Florida Federation of Women’s Clubs were able to organize a Daytona Beach chapter of the Circle of Negro War Relief (CNWR).Hanson, p. 97. The CNWR “promoted black women’s participation in the war effort” and was designed to meet the needs of Black veterans. Bethune, along with CNWR, and the Florida Club encouraged the entire Black community to get involved. This represents yet another example of Mary’s commitment to uplift the entire community and it was creative and appropriate to recruit members of the Black community to play a role in their own deliverance. They conducted voluntary food conservation drives, taught community members how to can and preserve food, and conducted fundraising efforts through food salesHanson, p. . The CNWR also established home demonstration and public health programs, improved recreational facilities and playgrounds for children, and the Mutual Protection League for Working Girls.Hanson, p. .