(July 10, 1875 - May 18, 1955)
Mary McLeod Bethune used the power of education, political activism, and civil service to achieve racial and gender equality throughout the United States and the world. The first person in her family born free and the first person in her family afforded a formal education, Bethune emerged from abject poverty and oppression of the Reconstruction South to achieve greatness.
Born Mary Jane McLeod on July 10, 1875 in Mayesville, South Carolina, the fifteenth of seventeen children, she had the unusual opportunity to attend school and receive an education not common among African Americans following the Civil War. Most of her schooling prepared her for missionary work abroad, though she would never serve. Instead, she taught at schools in Georgia and South Carolina. In Sumter, South Carolina in 1898, she met her husband, Albertus Bethune, and within a year gave birth to their son, Albert. The family moved to Palatka, Florida, approximately 50 miles south of Jacksonville. There, she established a missionary school. Bethune moved again to Daytona Beach and established another school—the Daytona Literary and Industrial Training Institute for Negro Girls—on October 3, 1904 that she grew from $1.50, five girls (plus her son), faith in God, confidence in her people, and a belief in herself, to a high school. In 1923, this school merged with the all-male Cookman Institute of Jacksonville, Florida, and in 1931, the school became accredited by the Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools of the Southern States, with its name officially changed to Bethune-Cookman College, at which time Bethune became the first African American woman to serve as a college president. At the time, it was one of the very few institutions below the Mason-Dixon Line where African Americans could receive something higher than a high school diploma. Now a fully accredited university, the school enrolls over 4,000 students.
While working in Daytona Beach, Bethune became involved with a number of clubs and organizations supporting the efforts of African American women. Beginning first at a state level, Bethune worked to establish programs that would fight to end segregated education, to improve healthcare for Black children, and to help women use the ballot to advance equality. Her successes on a local level propelled her to the national stage when the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) elected her its eighth national president in 1924. Working with a large national organization helped Bethune develop a network of contacts. Bethune’s previous administrative experiences served her well, and she proved to be a capable manager of the day-to-day affairs of the 10,000 member association. She grew the organization, undertook fundraising activities, and strengthened communication between its members. When her tenure as president ended, she began to formulate plans for an umbrella organization that would not just focus on making women better people, but on helping them to become agents of social change. The results of these plans drove her to create the National Council of Negro Women, Inc. (NCNW) on December 5, 1935, at which time she was unanimously elected its first president, serving until 1949. Under her leadership, the NCNW grew to over 850,000 members. Today, the over 4 million members of the NCNW continue the work begun by Bethune.
A woman of many hats, Bethune was a prolific writer, contributing to various publications such as the NACW's National Notes, the National Urban League's Opportunity, NCNW's Aframerican Woman's Journal (later renamed Women United), the Journal of Negro History, and weekly columns in newspapers such as the Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago Defender. She owned real estate in Florida (Bethune-Volusia Beach), invested in several businesses and life insurance companies (she founded Central Life Insurance of Florida), and was also a chronicler of African American history. She recognized the importance of preserving historical records about the rich and diverse contributions African American women have made to the American culture. She envisioned a permanent and growing collection which would be used by historians and educators. She uniquely understood the significance of maintaining an archives of Black women's history and the impact it would have on future generations. Bethune was great friends with Dr. Carter G. Woodson and served as the first female president of his organization, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, Inc. (known today as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Inc. or ASALH) and was also involved in other projects to preserve the history of African American women and the documentation of their achievements. Today, the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House NHS also includes the National Archives for Black Women’s History as part of Bethune’s legacy, and to date, remains the only archive solely dedicated to the collection, preservation, and interpretation of African American women.
Upon her retirement from an active role as president of Bethune-Cookman College in 1947 and president of the NCNW in 1949, Bethune spent the remainder of her life at her "official" home, which she called "the Retreat", now known as the Mary McLeod Bethune Foundation National HIstoric Landmark, which is located on the campus of her beloved school. It is from here that she continued to entertain national leaders and foreign dignitaries, inspire and mentor countless young men and women, speak out on current events, and cement her lasting legacy. It is also at this home where she died peacefully on May 18, 1955. News of her death was followed by editorial tributes from all over the world. The Daytona Beach Evening Newspaper printed: "To some, she seemed unreal, something that could not be...The lesson of Mrs. Bethune's life is that genius knows no racial barriers." She is buried on the school's campus.
As one of the most important and celebrated figures in American history, Mary McLeod Bethune received countless awards and honors during her lifetime and her work and legacy are still being perpetuated today. In 1973, Bethune was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame. In 1974 on the 99th anniversary of her birth, Dr. Dorothy I. Height and the NCNW unveiled and dedicated the Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial in Lincoln Park, Washington, D.C. to a crowd of over 18,000 people. Designed by sculptor Robert Berks, it was the first memorial to honor an African American and a woman in a public park in the nation's capital. In 1985, the United States Postal Service issued a stamp in Bethune's honor, becoming the second Black woman (after Harriet Tubman) to be featured on a U.S. postage stamp, as part of its Black Heritage Series. When the Council House officially opened to the public as a unit of the national park system in 1995, it became the second national park named for a Black woman (after the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site in Richmond, Virginia). There is a historical marker in Mayesville, Sumter County, South Carolina commemorating her birthplace and schools have been named for her all across America. In 2021, a statue of Bethune was erected in Jersey City, New Jersey in a namesake park, and finally on July 13, 2022, the statue of Bethune representing the State of Florida was unveiled and dedicated in National Statuary Hall at the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. As the first African American to represent a state specifically in the Hall, she replaced Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith after the Legislature of Florida designated her as one of Florida's two statues.
Learn more about Mary McLeod Bethune's accomplishments by taking a look at her Résumé.
Last updated: June 1, 2023