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Educator, Stateswoman, Philanthropist, Humanitarian, & Civil Rights Activist
During Women’s History Month, we shine the light on the incredible life and accomplishments of Ms. Mary McLeod Bethune.
Mary was on the front lines when it came to educational and racial equality. Her life’s work revolved around women’s rights, education, and civil rights. But before she was a philanthropist, educator, stateswoman, humanitarian and activist, she came from humble beginnings.
Mary Bethune was born in 1875 in South Carolina. She was the 15th out of 17 children. Her parents were former slaves, and she joined them working in the fields at the young age of 5. Education was always important to her, and since she was the only one out of all of her siblings to attend school, she found joy in teaching her siblings all she learned in school each day. Her teacher quickly became her mentor and helped Bethune get into Scotia Seminary on a scholarship. Her goal was to become a missionary, so she attended Dwight L. Moody’s Institute for Home and Foreign Missions in Chicago. When she was told that she couldn’t be a missionary because she was black, she decided to teach instead.
Bethune started teaching at Haines Normal and Industrial Institute in Atlanta. It was here that she discovered her passion for education, more specifically the education and empowerment of women and girls. After only a year of teaching, she was transferred to the Kindell Institute in South Carolina.
Bethune eventually married and moved to Florida, where she began pursuing her dream of opening her own school for girls. In 1904 she rented a small house in Daytona and got creative when it came to workspaces, desks, and chairs. She used lumber and old crates and created a workable learning space. The school started out with just six students, five girls, and Bethune’s son Albert. Through charity, fundraising and faith, the school grew to 30 students in the first year. In 1931 the school merged with the Cookman Institute, forming the Bethune-Cookman College where Bethune became president. By 1941, the college was thriving and offered four-year degrees and reached full college status,
During her time as president, Bethune served as the Florida chapter president for the National Association of Colored Women. She was also the president of the Southeastern Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs from 1920 to 1925, which fit right in with her passion for improving opportunities for black women. In 1930 President Calvin Coolidge appointed her to the White House Conference on Child Health.
The list of Bethune’s accomplishments and contributions to the women and girls of the African American community is endless. From being president of the Southeastern Federation of Colored Women’s Club and founding the National Council of Negro Women, to becoming close friends with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Bethune lived a life of hard work and determination. She was relentless in her pursuit of civil rights and raising money for organizations that would improve the lives of African Americans.
Students can explore the cities that Mary herself loved when they visit Chicago and Atlanta. Although these bustling metropolitan cities are far from what they were when Mary was alive, students will fall in love with the charm, history, and vibrant communities within these cities.
It’s not just women and minorities that are still benefiting from Mary’s work over 100 years ago. She leaves behind a legacy that encourages a love for education, activism, and justice; three ideas that everyone can get behind.