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 an equal or greater role than many of the popular names that are so often repeated among African Americans. Our proud, Black Queen Mothers must be remembered and hailed as well for their roles as scholars, warriors, and the nurturers of the movements that have led us to victory.
Mary McLeod Bethune was one such scholar-warrior. Like many men and women of her day, she was born onto former slaves in 1875 – 10 years after the end of the Civil War – in Mayesville, South Carolina. And like most Black women during the days of Reconstruction, Mary was forced to pick cotton as a sharecropper while also attending a local religiously operated primary school. The fact that Mary was able to attend school was amazing in itself, considering at the time that the black rate of illiteracy that was over 70% in the South.
Like many Black men and women of her day, Mary McLeod Bethune demonstrated precocious intelligence with the belief that her education was the key to her material salvation. At the very young age of 13, she was awarded a scholarship to Scotia Seminary in North Carolina. During that period, most Blacks were denied entry to traditional colleges and universities, making seminaries and bible colleges the primary mode of upward academic mobility. By the time Mary was 18, she had already graduated seminary and travelled to Chicago. Her mission was to travel to Africa as a missionary on behalf of Moody Bible College. Unfortunately, that mission would not be accomplished.
Mary was denied admission. The school already had two Blacks in attendance. “Besides,” she was informed “African Americans are not selected for such assignments.”
Rejected, Mary was awakened to the truth about her position in the United States – that while she had achieved so much more than so many others, she would forever be held back by the men and women of other races. Filled with this new knowledge, she set out to battle the system by arming more of her brothers and sisters with the weapons of education and self-reliance.
The Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute
Mary returned to South Carolina and would later move on to Georgia where she would become a teacher in several Presbyterian schools. On her travels, she met and married Albertus Bethune in 1898, and gave birth to their son in 1899. The new family moved to Florida to start their new life together with the promise of work on the The St. Johns & Halifax River Railway. The couple would remain there until the death of her husband in 1918.
While railroad workers were away, there were no schools for their children to attend, an opportunity that Mary seized upon by establishing the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute in 1904. Initially, the school wasnt much of a success, but with endurance and business savvy, she grew the school from a few elementary students to hundreds of students in courses of study ranging from mathematics and grammar to industrial training and religion.
Mary procured funds from both Black and white donors. Major donors included James M. Gamble of Proctor and Gamble, who served as president of the school’s board of trustees from 1912 until his death, and Thomas H. White of the White Sewing Machine Company.
With student enrollment on the rise and Angel Investors on deck, Mary McLeod Bethune was then able to offer an expanded resume of amenities to her students – including a school hospital with nursing classes.
Within a few years, in response to the “whites only” policy of the local hospital, Mary opened a hospital of her own. For the next 20 ears, the hospital would operate as the first and only Black hospital in the area.
The success of the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute led to a merger with the Methodist Episcopal Church’s Cookman Institute for men in Jacksonville, Florida, creating the Bethune-Cookman College in 1923. By 1941, the school had won full accreditation as a four-year college, thanks to the vision, intelligence, and leadership of Mary McLeod Bethune. She would rightly preside over the school as its President until the beginning of World War II.
Queen Bethune’s activities would not be limited to involvement within the school.
During World War I, Bethune helped pressure the American Red Cross to integrate, and she was active in anti-lynching campaigns.In 1924, Mary McLeod Bethune was elected president of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) – an accomplished organization that is still alive and active today. She also gathered together many different Black women’s organizations to found the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), serving as its president from 1935 to 1949. During that same time, she also served as vice-president of the NAACP (from 1940 to 1955), and as President of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, the black history organization founded by Carter G. Woodson.
Service to the United States
Queen Bethune was a gifted overachiever. Not satisfied with the limited scope of her work, she voluntarily served on presidential commissions under presidents Calvin Coolidge (child welfare) and Herbert Hoover (child welfare, home building and home ownership), and through her activities came to the attention of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor. She became a personal friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, and consulted with FDR on minority affairs. She played a key role in establishing, in 1936, the Federal Committee on Fair Employment Practice, to help reduce discrimination or even exclusion of African Americans by the growing defense industry.
As a testament to her savvy and understanding of domestic affairs, [then] President Roosevelt tapped Mary as a member of his New Deal cabinet following the depression. The “New Deal” focused on three “R”s - Relief for the unemployed and poor; Recovery of the economy to pre-depression levels; and Reform of the financial system to prevent a repeat of the depression.
Specifically, Mary was charged with management of the National Youth Administration, and later a directorship of the Division of Negro Affairs. These positions allowed her to secure funding for Black scholarship programs, equal work for equal pay where Blacks were concerned, and positions for other Black women in Democratic party offices.
It is also important to note that Mary McLeod Bethune had a direct hand in the creation of the United Nations charter following World War II, after having been appointed by [then] President Truman as a delegate to the historic San Francisco Conference.
In her late years, Bethune continued working for equal opportunity in hiring and education, and against segregation in public accommodations until her death by heart attack in 1955.
At a time when Black men and women were maligned by the press, 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.” and ”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.”
Today, 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, and a sculpture of her is located in Lincoln Park in Washington, D.C. Engraved in the side is a 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.
The school she founded still stands, and in 2004, Bethune-Cookman University celebrated its 100-year anniversary. Her legacy lives on in the thousands of Black men and women educated there each year. The school’s website can be found at Cookman.Edu.
Mary Mcleod Bethune was a mother to us all, an educator of unwavering dedication, and a standard-bearer for Black men and women. She was strong, chaste, business-savvy, and courageous in the name of true liberation for our people, and should forever be hailed in the Pantheon of our heroes!