On July 10, 1875 Mary Mcleod Bethune was born. She would go on to achieve as much for the Civil Rights Movement as Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and Rosa Parks.
The men of Black History Month are often widely publicized and given credit for the leadership of mass movements.
But the women of our society have played just as much of a role as many of the popular male names that are so often repeated in our community.
Our proud, Black Queen Mothers must be remembered and hailed as well for their roles as scholars, warriors, and the mothers of the movement.
This is the story of how Mary Mcleod Bethune changed the world.
The Early Biography Mary Mcleod Bethune
Like most Black women during the days of Reconstruction, she picked cotton as a sharecropper. But despite her humble birth, Mary McLeod Bethune displayed above average intelligence at a young age.
Her drive and natural ability earned her a Seminary scholarship at the old age of …13.
By her 18th birthday, she had already graduated seminary and was looking forward to traveling to Africa as a missionary.
But her trip would never happen. Moody – the Chicago based Bible College responsible for arranging the trip – denied her admission.
The school already had two Blacks in attendance and were not interested in bringing more onto campus.
“Besides,” she was told “African Americans are not selected for such assignments.”
That rejection revealed a truth about the Black experience in the United States.
While she had achieved so much more than so many others, Mary Mcleod Bethune – and all Blacks – were second-class citizens.
Some Black folks are defeated when they wake up to the brutality of white supremacy for the first time.
But not Mary Mcleod Bethune.
Instead of accepting rejection, Mary dedicated the rest of her life to fighting back.
From The School House To The White House
Later in life when she and her husband would move to Florida, Mary would see her first opportunity to strike a blow.
Black railroad workers from around the American South descended on Daytona Beach, Florida with the promise of jobs.
While those railroad workers were away, there were no schools for their children to attend.
Mary seized the opportunity by establishing her first school – the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute in 1904.
With endurance and business savvy, she grew the school from a few elementary students to hundreds of students.
Her school curriculum grew to cover everything from basic grammar and math to industrial training and religion.
Another remarkable achievement was how Mary Mcleod Bethune funded her school.
She was able to use her charisma and marketing savvy to attract both Black and white donors, including James M. Gamble of Proctor and Gamble.
With student enrollment on the rise and Angel Investors on deck, Mary McLeod Bethune rolled her success into new ventures.
Since Black students had no hospital (the closest one was “whites only”) Mary opened one for her own people.
For the next 20 ears, her hospital would operate as the first and only Black hospital in the area.
By 1923, the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute had become so large that it absorbed other local institutions.
When Mary’s school absorbed the nearby Methodist Episcopal Church’s Cookman Institute for men, Bethune-Cookman College was born.
Less than 20 years later, Bethune – Cookman was accredited, with Mary Mcleod Bethune rightfully serving as it’s first President.
Mary had turned her rejection all those years ago into victory.
Mary Mcleod Bethune and the Fight For Civil Rights
By the end of World War I, Mary Mcleod Bethune had already amassed some incredible achievements.
But those who knew the depth of her conviction also knew she would not stop there.
In 1924, she campaigned for – and was elected – as the President of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). Over the years, she would simultaneously hold positions of power, including:
- Founder and President of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW)
- Vice-president of the NAACP (from 1940 to 1955)
- President of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History – the black history organization founded by Carter G. Woodson.
Her leadership across those organizations laid the foundation for the Civil Rights movement in the United States.
How Mary Mcleod Bethune Changed The World
In another day and age, Queen Mother Bethune should have become the President of the United States.
But in her time, she ascended to Capitol Hill as a member of both child welfare and home ownership commissions under U.S. Presidents Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover.
President Roosevelt would even tap Mary as a member of his New Deal cabinet following the depression.
From her cabinet position, she secured funding for Black scholarship programs, equal work for equal pay for Blacks, and positions for other Black women in Democratic party offices.
She would then go on to help establish the 1936 Federal Committee on Fair Employment Practice.
After World War II, Mary McLeod Bethune had a direct hand in the creation of the United Nations charter, having been appointed by [then] President Truman as a delegate to the historic San Francisco Conference.
Few Black women in American history have had as powerful an impact as Queen Mother Mary Mcleod Bethune.
Mary Mcleod Bethune would work with the same determination that she started with all the way up to her death in 1955. When she passed, even the racist American press treated her like royalty.
Tributes from major editorials in the United States read:
“So great were her dynamism and force that it was almost impossible to resist her… Not only her own people, but all America has been enriched and ennobled by her courageous, ebullient spirit.”
“To some she seemed unreal, something that could not be…. What right had she to greatness?… The lesson of Mrs. Bethune’s life is that genius knows no racial barriers.”
Mary Mcleod Bethune was a mother to us all, an educator of unwavering dedication, and a standard-bearer for Black men and women.
Her legacy lives on in the thousands of Black men and women educated each year at the school that she founded. In fact, in 2004 Bethune-Cookman University celebrated its 100-year anniversary. The school’s website can be found at Cookman.Edu.
Her home in Daytona Beach is a National Historic Landmark, and The Mary Mcleod Bethune Council House in Washington, D.C. is a national historic site.
Of all that she left us, her legacy can be best summed by this passage from her “Last Will and Testament”:
I leave you love. I leave you hope. I leave you the challenge of developing confidence in one another. I leave you a thirst for education. I leave you a respect for the use of power. I leave you faith. I leave you racial dignity. I leave you a desire to live harmoniously with your fellow men. I leave you a responsibility to our young people.