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Table of

Determining the Facts

Reading 1: Mary McLeod Bethune

Humble Beginnings
Mary McLeod was born on July 10, 1875, near Mayesville, South Carolina. She was the fifteenth of 17 children born to former slaves Samuel and Patsy McLeod. Racism was prevalent in the post-Reconstruction South. At this time, African American children did not have many opportunities to attend school. Mayesville did not have a school for blacks until Emma Wilson, an African American teacher and missionary, founded the Trinity Presbyterian Mission School in 1882. In 1885, Mary became the first member of her family to attend the new school. For the next several years, she walked five miles to the one-room school. Impressed by Mary's determination, Wilson chose her as the recipient of a scholarship to attend Scotia Seminary, a school for black women in North Carolina. The scholarship was provided by a teacher in Colorado who wanted to help an African American girl further her education.

After McLeod graduated in 1894, her benefactor paid for her to attend the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. When she completed the program the following year, McLeod was anxious to serve as a missionary in Africa. She was told by the Presbyterian Mission Board, however, that there were no missionary positions available for blacks in Africa. Although disappointed, McLeod soon acknowledged that "Africans in America needed Christ and school just as much as Negroes in Africa….My life work lay not in Africa but in my own country."1 She returned to Mayesville, South Carolina, and began teaching at her former school.

Soon she moved to Augusta, Georgia, to teach at Haines Normal and Industrial Institute. There she worked with Lucy Laney, founder and principal of the school. Laney's dedication to serving others inspired McLeod. In May 1898, she married Albertus Bethune, a clothes salesman, and moved to Savannah, Georgia. The couple had a son in February 1899 and shortly thereafter moved to Palatka, Florida, where Mrs. Bethune opened a mission school for poor African American children.

In 1904, the family moved to Daytona Beach, Florida, so Mrs. Bethune could open a school for the children of poor black laborers on the Florida East Coast Railroad. She found a rundown building and persuaded the owner to accept $1.50 as a down payment for the $11 per month rent. She rummaged for discarded supplies and found a barrel to use as a desk and crates for chairs. Of that time, she later wrote, "I haunted the city dump and the trash piles behind hotels, retrieving discarded linen and kitchen ware, cracked dishes, broken chairs, pieces of old lumber. Everything was scoured and mended."2 In October 1904, the Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls opened with five students (ages 8-12) who paid 50 cents a week for tuition.

By 1906, the school had almost 250 students. Needing a bigger space, Bethune set out to raise money by selling homemade ice cream and sweet potato pies and putting on concerts. She even rang doorbells asking for donations. Bethune later remembered, "If a prospect refused to make a contribution, I would say, 'Thank you for your time.' No matter how deep my hurt, I always smiled. I refused to be discouraged, for neither God nor man can use a discouraged person."3 Finally, with the help of a few wealthy businessmen, Bethune was able to purchase land and build a brick school.

Bethune believed that in order to advance, African Americans must first achieve financial independence. To do this, they must learn manual skills that would help them earn jobs. As a result, students studied sewing, cooking, broom making, weaving, housekeeping, etc., as well as academic subjects and religion. This educational philosophy was advanced by Booker T. Washington, a respected black leader who founded the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Bethune admired Washington and even had the privilege of receiving him as a visitor to her school.

In 1908, Bethune's husband decided to return to South Carolina, leaving her and her son on their own. By 1916, the school offered a high school curriculum with training in nursing, teaching, and business. Despite Bethune's relentless fundraising efforts, the school continued to struggle financially. In 1923, it merged with a college in Jacksonville, Florida, and became Bethune-Cookman College with almost 800 students. Bethune remained president of the school until 1942, when she resigned in order to focus on her national agenda.

Growing Recognition
Mary McLeod Bethune's work as an educator ultimately led her to become an influential political activist. In 1909, she attended a conference of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs (NACWC). The passionate speech she gave about her Florida school inspired the attendees to take up a collection. NACWC's president, Mary Church Terrell, was so impressed that she predicted Bethune would one day become president of NACWC.

In the years that followed, Bethune assumed leadership positions in several African American women's clubs. In 1924, Bethune fulfilled Terrell's prediction by serving as president of the NACWC, the highest national position for a black woman at that time. As NACWC president, she led the organization to focus on social issues facing all women and society in general. The group lobbied for a federal antilynching bill and prison reform and offered job training for women.

Through her participation in national women's groups, Bethune made many contacts and formed important friendships. As a member of the National Council of Women of the United States, she attended a luncheon hosted by Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt's wife in New York. Bethune, the only African American woman at the event, soon began a close friendship with Mrs. Roosevelt. In 1928, Bethune was the only African American invited to take part in a conference on child welfare in Washington, D.C. In 1929, President Hoover asked her to serve on the National Commission for Child Welfare and the Commission on Home Building and Home Ownership. In both roles, she advised the government on the needs of African Americans.

Bethune's influence continued to increase in the 1930s as the nation was plunged into the Great Depression. Her relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt proved even more important once Franklin Roosevelt became President of the United States. The "New Deal" that FDR promised Americans resulted in many programs designed to provide financial relief. Among these was the National Youth Administration (NYA), created in 1935 to ease unemployment among Americans ages 16 to 25. When First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt invited Bethune to join the NYA Advisory Committee, Bethune accepted the volunteer position and even moved to Washington, D.C. The NYA focused on education, job training, and employment. Young African Americans often suffered even more than whites because of the economic condition of their families prior to the Depression. Added to this was the fact that many white people, desperate for work, were taking over jobs in agriculture and domestic work previously held by blacks. To help combat these issues, Bethune encouraged black participation and leadership in NYA programs.

National Influence
Impressed by Bethune's work, FDR offered to put her in charge of a new department within NYA—the Division of Negro Affairs. Aubrey Williams, administrator of the NYA, encouraged her to accept, saying, "Do you realize that this is the first time in the history of America that an administrative government office has been created for one of the Negro race?"4 On June 24, 1936, Bethune officially joined the NYA Washington staff as director of the Division of Negro Affairs. As such, she became the first black woman to head a department of a federal agency.

The NYA position earned Bethune recognition and prestige. A group of newspapers named her one of the 50 most influential women in America and the NAACP awarded her their prestigious Spingarn medal for outstanding achievement by a black American. Eleanor Roosevelt stated, "She had a great deal of influence with the President, who had complete trust in whatever she told him as it affected the young people of her race while she was working in the NYA."5 In 1936, as part of her effort to focus attention on racial inequality, she organized the Federal Council on Negro Affairs, which became known as the Black Cabinet. Comprised of African Americans who had been appointed to various government agencies, the group first met in August 1936 at Bethune's apartment. They focused on how blacks could be better represented in the administration and how they could best benefit from New Deal programs. Bethune explained, "We have had a chance to look down the stream of the forty-eight states and evaluate the type of work and positions secured by Negroes. The responsibility rests on us. We can get better results by thinking together and planning together….Let us band together and work together as one big brotherhood and give momentum to the great ball that is starting to roll for Negroes."6

Although the Black Cabinet did not operate in an official capacity, the group made studies and submitted reports to the federal government over the course of seven years. Within six months of being in Washington, Bethune had "managed to bring together for unified thought and action all of the colored people high in government authority."7 By the mid 1930s, Bethune's tireless energy and devotion had secured her reputation as a powerful figure in the fight for African American and women's rights.

Questions for Reading 1

1. How was Mary McLeod able to attend Scotia and Moody Bible Institute? How do you think this generous gift impacted her life and her desire to help others?

2. Who were some of the people who influenced Bethune?

3. Based on the reading, what were some of the character traits that helped Bethune succeed? What specific examples of these traits can you find in the reading?

4. How did Bethune go from being an educator to a political activist?

5. What was the NYA? What was Bethune's role? How did this role help her gain recognition?

6. What were some of the tactics Bethune used to achieve her goals (both for her school and her national agenda)?

7. What was the Black Cabinet? Why was it important?

Reading 1 was adapted from Andrea Broadwater, Mary McLeod Bethune: Educator and Activist (Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 2003); Malu Halasa, Mary McLeod Bethune: Educator (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1989); Audrey Thomas McCluskey and Elaine M. Smith, eds., Mary McLeod Bethune: Building a Better World: Essays and Selected Documents (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1999); Elaine M. Smith, Mary McLeod Bethune and the National Council of Negro Women: Historic Resource Study (Alabama State University, 2003); and Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site: General Management Plan (Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, 2001).

1Malu Halasa,, Mary McLeod Bethune: Educator (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1989), 34.
2Andrea Broadwater, Mary McLeod Bethune: Educator and Activist (Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 2003), 37.
3Ibid., 52.
4Elaine M. Smith, Mary McLeod Bethune and the National Council of Negro Women: Historic Resource Study (Alabama State University, 2003), 73.
5Ibid., 104.
6As quoted in McCluskey and Smith, eds., 227.
7Smith, 103.


Comments or Questions

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