proFile of Mary McLeod Bethune
With Women’s History Month upon us, we at proF are looking back. While part of our mission is to highlight the women currently doing exciting and challenging things in the world of higher ed., we also intend to spotlight those that came before – the many women pioneers in the field of higher education.
"Democracy is for me, and for 12 million black Americans, a goal towards which our nation is marching. It is a dream and an ideal in whose ultimate realization we have a deep and abiding faith. […] Here my race has been afforded [the] opportunity to advance from a people 80 percent illiterate to a people 80 percent literate; from abject poverty to the ownership and operation of a million farms and 750,000 homes; from total disfranchisement to participation in government; from the status of chattels to recognized contributors to the American culture.”
– Mary McLeod Bethune on NBC radio, 1939
Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) were in the news recently, as President Trump met with HBCU leaders for a “listening session” and pledged support to the schools, many of which are struggling with low enrollments and budget shortfalls. While no specifics have been proposed by the Trump administration, many HBCU presidents saw this as a positive first step to acknowledging the importance of these institutions.
One pioneer in the area of black higher education was Mary McLeod Bethune, founder and president of the Bethune-Cookman University, one of the few institutions of its time to admit black students. But she was more than just a college president and educator – Bethune was a tireless activist for civil rights who founded the National Council of Negro Women in 1935 and also served for seven years as an advisor on Minority Affairs under President Franklin D. Roosevelt – part of FDR’s unofficial “black cabinet,” the first of its kind assembled by any president. Bethune, who became a friend of fellow feminist Eleanor Roosevelt, was the only woman in the cabinet. Due to the recent discussion surrounding HBCUs and, of course, the fact that it’s Women’s History Month, it seems an appropriate time to shed light on Bethune’s exceptional story.
Mary McLeod Bethune’s early life was one of struggle that, due to her preternatural leadership ability and her passion for serving others, she was uniquely equipped to overcome. Born in 1875 as the free child of former slaves, Bethune (born Mary McLeod) spent her childhood picking cotton in the fields of Maysville, South Carolina alongside her parents and her 16 brothers and sisters. She was a curious and driven child who wanted nothing more than the opportunity to learn. Bethune spoke of this experience in a 1940 interview (part of the Florida State archives) with Sociologist Dr. Charles Spurgeon Johnson, the first black president of Fisk University. She recalls,
I could see little white boys and girls going to school every day, learning to read and write; living in comfortable homes with all types of opportunities for growth and service and to be surrounded as I was with no opportunity for school life, no chance to grow – I found myself very often yearning all along for the things that were being provided for the white children with whom I had to chop cotton every day, or pick corn, or whatever my task happened to be.
I think that actually, the first hurt that came to me in my childhood was the contrast of what was being done for the white children and the lack of what we got.
But when Bethune was nine years old, a local missionary came to the community, looking for children to enroll in a school she was starting. Bethune’s parents only had enough money to send one child, and they chose their bright and curious daughter Mary, whose experience in that tiny school would spark a lifelong love affair with learning. According to her PBS Biography, Bethune “walked the five miles to and from the Maysville school and did her homework by candlelight. She took all the classes she possibly could and would teach her parents and siblings what she had learned during any free time.”
Though the family’s poverty meant many setbacks, Bethune was awarded a scholarship to attend high school at the Scotia Seminary for Girls in Concord, North Carolina. It was at Scotia where Bethune’s decision to be an educator was cemented. In the previously cited 1940 interview, she speaks effusively about the teachers there, both black and white, who extended great kindness and knowledge to her as a young, inexperienced student. “They were so interesting and there were so many interesting things at school,” she recalled. “I don’t know why, but I entered in the school life there just as I did in the little mission, finding things to do and people to serve. I was called peace maker there.”
After Scotia, Bethune received another scholarship, this time for college halfway across the country, at Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute. When she graduated in 1895, she moved to Georgia, where she became a teacher at a small mission school, married and had a son. For a black woman in America at the time, Bethune’s story was already extraordinary – a child of slaves who had managed to graduate from both high school and college and embark upon a career. But it was just the beginning. In 1904, young black men and women began flocking to Daytona Beach, Florida, where construction of a railroad meant good jobs. Here, Bethune saw opportunity. She longed to build her own school and instill in other young black girls the thirst for learning she had felt as a child. So with little money and a husband and son in tow, she bought a cottage in Daytona Beach and got to work recruiting students. “I got a little rented house…I couldn’t pay the rent,” she said in 1940. “The house belonged to a Negro man named John Williams, he rented the house to me for eleven dollars a month. I told him I had no money – but he said he would trust me.”
Called the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Girls, the school had only five students to start, but grew quickly. Bethune demonstrated a knack for rallying and organizing volunteers, as well as fundraising, and was able to turn the Institute into a thriving accredited high school specializing in vocational training. After merging with the nearby Cookman Institute for Men in 1923 and, in 1931, acquiring the support of the United Methodist Church, it would go on to become Bethune-Cookman University, one of the first colleges open to black students and one still active in Daytona Beach today as a private, historically black university with around 3,500 students.
While building and expanding her school, Bethune was making a name for herself as an activist for civil and women’s rights. In 1924, she was elected president of the National Association of Colored Women, which worked for the welfare of African-American women through education, economics, and host of other issues. Through this organization, Bethune eventually made the acquaintance of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. In the mid-1930s came what is arguably the most important moment in Mary McLeod Bethune’s legacy, pertaining to both African-American and women’s history: her role in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s unofficial “black cabinet,” a group of black leaders who advised the president on issues relating to blacks in America. Though it included such luminaries as literacy advocate Ambrose Caliver, attorney William Henry Hastie, and economist Robert C. Weaver, Bethune, the cabinet’s only woman, was arguably one its most influential members. Her official title from 1936-1944 was “Special Counsel on Minority Affairs,” and Roosevelt also selected her to head the Division of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration, making her the first black woman to lead a federal agency. At this time, she also organized the National Council of Negro Women to protect civil and women’s rights. Bethune became a frequent guest at the White House, and Eleanor Roosevelt entrusted her with strategic missions to ease racial tensions in the country during WWII.
Bethune’s outspoken nature and prominent efforts to improve race relations during this era earned her the nickname “The First Lady of the Struggle.” In 1942, she retired as president of Bethune-Cookman, but continued, until the end of her life, to work as an education and civil rights activist through public speaking engagements and other advocacy. Bethune’s philosophy of education was not without controversy, even within the African-American community. She was focused on vocational education first and foremost, putting her at odds with civil rights leaders like W.E.B. DuBois and Ida Wells, who believed that access to higher intellectual pursuits was crucial for blacks. But there was no doubt that she was an extraordinary advocate and a strong voice for black women at a time when their concerns were rarely being heard.
Mary McLeod Bethune died on May 18, 1955 at the age of 79. At the time of her death, she was still close with Eleanor Roosevelt, who wrote a tribute in her syndicated newspaper column “My Day.” The First Lady wrote of Bethune, “She fought for the rights of her people but never with resentment or bitterness, and she taught both her own people and her white fellow Americans many a valuable lesson.”
Perhaps what was most impressive about Bethune – an example we should all want to follow – was her self-assured attitude about her role as a leader. Even today, men are more likely to lead than women, and many women are conditioned to downplay their strengths and defer to the loudest voice in the room. But at a time when a woman of color could legally be denied basic human rights, Bethune stood strong, confident in the pure necessity of her mission. “I never had difficulty getting people to follow me,” she said in 1940. “Never, from the start. They seemed to realize the seriousness and unselfishness of my motives.”
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Photo credits: Photo 1: Public Domain; Photo 2: Bethune and her students outside of Daytona Institute in 1905. Photo Credit: Florida State Archives Photographic Collection, Public Domain; Photo 3: Bethune with Eleanor Roosevelt in 1943. Photo Credit: U.S. National Archives, Public Domain