Last updated: July 31, 2020
Mary McLeod Bethune
Mary McLeod Bethune became one of the most celebrated African American figures of the New Deal era and extended her influence as an educator, civil rights activist, and advocate for women’s equality for more than three decades from the 1920s to the 1950s. Born near Mayesville, South Carolina, July 10, 1875, she was the 15th of 17 children of former slaves who had purchased a small farm after the Civil War. Through the influence of her parents, Samuel and Patsy (McIntosh) McLeod, as well as her own self-determination, she raised herself from the position of a member of a cotton farming family to become an internationally known figure.
At a time when African Americans rarely attained advanced education due to discriminatory practices, Mary McLeod attended the recently opened Trinity Presbyterian Mission School in Mayesville from 1882 to 1886. Aided by a scholarship and the encouragement of her mentor, Emma Wilson, she attended Scotia Seminary for Negro Girls (later Barber-Scotia College) in Concord, North Carolina, a missionary outpost of northern Presbyterians that emphasized religious instruction and industrial education. At Scotia, she completed the high school program in 1892 and the Normal and Scientific Course two years later. Although she attended the Bible Institute for Home and Foreign Missions (later the Moody Bible Institute) in Chicago, Illinois, during 1894-95 with plans to become a missionary, she was refused a commission to serve in Africa by the Presbyterian Mission Board.
Disappointed by this turn of events, Mary McLeod returned to South Carolina and began her first teaching job at the Trinity Presbyterian Mission School in Mayesville, where she had once been a student. Shortly thereafter, the Presbyterian board appointed her to a teaching position at Haines Normal and Industrial Institute in Augusta, Georgia. There she worked with Lucy Craft Laney, the dynamic black founder and principal of the school, with whom she had previously become acquainted and who would become Mary McLeod’s model for serving others. During the 1896-97 school year, she organized the Mission Sabbath School for 275 of the city’s poorest children. After a year, she transferred to teach at the Kindell Institute in Sumter, South Carolina (1897-98). Following her marriage to Albertus Bethune, a former teacher but then a menswear salesman, in May 1898, the Bethunes moved to Savannah, Georgia, to further his business career. Their only child, Albert McLeod Bethune, was born the following year. Later in 1899, the family relocated to Palatka, Florida, where Mrs. Bethune established a Presbyterian missionary school. Albertus Bethune did not share his wife’s missionary ardor, however, and they separated. (Albertus would die of tuberculosis in 1918.)
After five years of teaching and administering the school in Palatka, Mrs. Bethune’s lifelong ambition to build a school for African American girls in the South led her to Daytona Beach, Florida, where, in October 1904, the Daytona Educational and Industrial Institute opened with Bethune as its president. The school, patterned after the Scotia Seminary, was opened in a rented house with six students—five girls and her own son. As a result of her business and organizing skills, the assistance of the black community, and the largesse of some prominent white philanthropists vacationing in Florida, such as James M. Gamble and John D. Rockefeller, Mrs. Bethune’s school grew from a small elementary school to incorporate a high school under the banner of the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute in 1918. Like most other African American institutions of the period, the school stressed religion, secretarial work, homemaking, and industrial education, with emphasis on agriculture and animal husbandry in tandem with academics; the school had a farm that focused on the production and handling of food products to meet the school’s needs and to provide income. By April 1920, 47 girls had completed the full high school course, and 10, having completed the institution’s teacher training program, were teaching in Florida’s public schools.
In 1923 Mrs. Bethune’s school merged with Cookman Institute, a Jacksonville, Florida, Methodist Episcopal Church college for men, to become the Daytona-Cookman Collegiate Institute with 42 faculty members and nearly 800 students. Six years later, the school’s name was changed to Bethune-Cookman College in recognition of the important role that Mrs. Bethune had played in the school’s growth and development. In 1932 the institution received regional accreditation as a junior college, and in 1936 the high school department was discontinued. In 1943, the college began conferring degrees in teacher education upon its first four-year graduates. Bethune would serve as the college’s president (1932-42, 1946-47) and as president-emeritus, trustee, and chairman of its advisory board (1946-55).
As an educator in the South, Mrs. Bethune had concerns that extended beyond campus life. In the absence of a municipally supported medical facility for African Americans, the Daytona school, under her guidance, maintained a hospital for African Americans from 1911 to 1927. During much of this period, she also operated the Tomoka Mission Schools for the children of black families working the Florida turpentine camps. Ignoring threats made by members of the Ku Klux Klan, she organized a black female voter registration drive in Florida in September 1920 following adoption of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. As a delegate to the first meeting of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, she voiced her opposition to degrading southern racial customs.
While directing the Daytona school, Mrs. Bethune gained national prominence through her work with the National Association of Colored Women. From 1917 to 1925 she served as president of the Florida Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, which opened a rehabilitative home for “wayward” and delinquent girls in Ocala in September 1921. In 1920 she founded and became president of a regional association, which became the Southeastern Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs. One of the major triumphs of this organization was supplying leadership for the women’s general committee of the regional Commission on Interracial Cooperation headquartered in Atlanta.
During 1923-24, Bethune served as president of the National Association of Teachers in Colored Schools, a professional organization of black teachers from mostly southern states.
In 1924 Mrs. Bethune’s work culminated in her election to the presidency of the National Association of Colored Women, an office regarded by many as the highest to which an African American woman could then aspire. During her tenure in this position, she directed the organization increasingly beyond itself to the broader social issues confronting American society. As president of the National Association of Colored Women, Bethune attended meetings of the National Council of Women of the United States. This organization provided her with expanded contacts throughout American society. In 1925 this council of 38 organizations—37 white and one African American—was the avenue for the association’s participation in the International Council of Women at its quinquennial conference, which attracted representatives from 35 countries to Washington, DC. During her four years as head of the association, Bethune emphasized efficient management and developing a presence in national and international affairs and continued the organization’s commitment to a scholarship fund and to the preservation of the Frederick Douglass home in the nation’s capital as a national memorial.
Mrs. Bethune also worked aggressively to project a positive image of African American women to whites through her travels in the United States and abroad. By her oratory and her example she inspired African American women to greater levels of service. Most important, however, she strengthened the structure of the 10,000-member National Association of Colored Women by revising its constitution, improving the association’s periodical, National Notes, and promoting greater communication between members. Through a strenuous financial campaign, she succeeded in establishing the association’s first permanent national headquarters at 1114 O Street in Washington, DC, in 1928, and employing its first paid executive secretary.
During the 1920s, Mrs. Bethune began to develop a national presence as a result of her appointment to the National Child Welfare Commission by Presidents Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover. The latter invited her to a White House conference in 1930 and appointed her to the Commission of Home Building and Home Ownership in 1931.
Beginning in 1935, Mrs. Bethune’s growing prominence was recognized by a number of honorary degrees and distinguished awards. During a 15-year period she would receive honorary doctoral degrees from eight colleges and universities. In addition, she was awarded the distinguished Joel E. Spingarn Medal by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1935, the Francis A. Drexel Award by Xavier University in 1937, and the Thomas Jefferson Award by the Southern Conference for Human Welfare in 1942.
On December 5, 1935, in New York City, Dr. Bethune, along with 20 other African American women representing 14 black women’s organizations, established the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) to unite African American w omen in social planning and action on national and international levels around such issues as education, employment, health, housing, civil rights, and international relations.
Although she remained active in the National Association of Colored Women, she had come to believe that its member federations and clubs were not sufficiently involved in local matters and were instead overly oriented toward self-help, thus preventing the association from speaking as the authoritative national voice that black women needed. Eloquently, she wrote:
The great need for uniting the effort of our women kept weighing upon my mind. I could not free myself from the sense of loss, of wasted strength, sustained by the national community through failure to harness the great power of women into a force for constructive action. I could not rest until our women had met this challenge.
Expressing a desire to see African American women united to “meet the unfolding of larger things,” the organization, under Dr. Bethune’s leadership, determined to pursue four principal objectives. These were to: (1) promote unity of action among women’s organizations in matters affecting the educational, cultural, economic, political, and social life in America; (2) build a fellowship of women devoted to developing friendly relations among all people in the world; (3) collect and preserve information about and affecting women; and (4) work for the complete elimination of any and all forms of discrimination and segregation based on race, religion, color, national origin, and sex.
Serving as the president of the National Council of Negro Women from its founding until November 1949, Dr. Bethune focused the council’s activities on segregation and discrimination. She also represented the council at the 1945 founding conference of the United Nations in San Francisco, serving as an unofficial observer with the NAACP delegation along with two other prominent African Americans (W.E.B. Dubois and Walter White). To strengthen the organization, she expanded its membership by creating chapters in major cities throughout the nation. The council’s first office in Washington, DC, was in her living room at 1812 Ninth Street, NW. When the growing organization required a larger permanent headquarters, she purchased a house at 1318 Vermont Avenue, NW (today known as the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site), and employed a full-time staff. She also launched the influential Aframerican Woman’s Journal, later named Women United, which carried articles about the council and also about the many interests of African American w omen. A newsletter, Telefact, began publication in 1943.
By the end of Dr. Bethune’s tenure as president, the council had become the largest federation of African American women’s clubs in the United States. The council included 22 national women’s organizations, including professional and occupational groups, both broadly based and subject-restricted academic sororities, Christian denominational societies, fraternal associations, auxiliaries, and various other groups. Today, the council, with its new headquarters at 633 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW (dedicated in October 1995), has an outreach of more than 4 million women in its membership through national affiliate organizations.
Dr. Bethune propelled the National Council of Negro Women to the forefront of the country’s women’s race organizations through its “Conference on Governmental Cooperation in the Approach to the Problems of Negro Women and Children,” held on April 4, 1938, at the Department of the Interior and the White House. The 1938 conference revealed her basic strategy for racial advancement, which was to win policy-making and management positions in government for competent African American women. This emphasis upon upper-level employment was designed to benefit the black masses.
Forceful and articulate, Dr. Bethune was a natural leader and concerned herself with improving the status of all African Americans regardless of socioeconomic position or gender. Among other positions, she served as vice president of the Commission on Interracial Cooperation (1934), president of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (1936-52), and vice president of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare (1938-48). Her support was important to the ongoing work of the National Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, serving as a vice president of both civil rights organizations for many years.
Dr. Bethune’s most significant influence as an African American leader came, however, through her role in the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It was she who primarily educated Eleanor Roosevelt, whom Bethune had met in 1927 through her work with the National Association of Colored Women, on the problems of African Americans in the United States. She was one of several African Americans who had direct access to the White House, providing her with a unique opportunity to personally urge the president to advance civil rights and promote African American interests.
In August 1935, through Eleanor Roosevelt’s influence, Dr. Bethune was appointed to the 35-member National Advisory Committee of the National Youth Administration (NYA). The agency’s primary purpose was to help young people find employment during the depression and later during the World War II defense effort. She used her relatively minor advisory position as a springboard; in June 1936 she was placed in charge of Negro affairs within the National Youth Administration, and in January 1939 she became director of the Division of Negro Affairs. The directorship represented the highest federal appointment ever held by an African American woman to that time and facilitated her functioning in the agency’s managerial hierarchy. In this position, she influenced the agency to adopt nondiscriminatory employment policies and to recognize special African American needs. She persuaded the National Youth Administration to expand the Division of Negro Affairs at the national level and to employ 27 African American administrative assistants at the state level.
When the agency adopted a regional structure in 1942, she succeeded in having it employ regional African American affairs representatives. She also guided the administration toward broadening African American participation in the school aid program, including high school and college work-study, vocational training, and job placement. She succeeded in crating the Special Negro Higher Education Fund, administered through her office, for African American graduate students and colleges. The fund disbursed more than $600,000 to 4,119 black students during a seven-year period.
In the training program for youth out of school, she pressed for opportunities for African Americans to learn skilled trades and argued for programs to assist black youth in finding jobs. Though her demands often went unheeded during the depression, her persistent efforts later resulted in the employment of some NYA-trained African American youth in World War II defense industries that had not previously hired blacks.
Believing in the efficacy of widespread cooperative efforts among African Americans—an important factor in the founding of the National Council of Negro Women—Dr. Bethune organized the Federal Council on Negro Affairs, popularly called the “Black Cabinet,” in August 1936. The council was an informal group of blacks in government who worked together to strengthen African American support of the New Deal and to promote nondiscrimination in government facilities, greater opportunities in government jobs, and the prevention of government actions harmful to blacks.
The Black Cabinet began meeting weekly at Bethune’s home in Washington, DC, and she was its influential spokesperson, urging that its energies be directed to the support of the emerging drive for civil rights. As a result of these efforts, she succeeded in creating channels of communication between civil rights organizations and the Roosevelt administration. She gained government support for two important National Conferences on the Problem of the Negro and Negro Youth in January 1937 and January 1939. Sponsored by the National Youth Administration and widely covered by the national media, these conferences spotlighted the plight of African Americans in the Unites States and provided a forum through which blacks could make policy recommendations to the government.
Dr. Bethune also worked for civil rights reform outside government channels. She participated in the New Negro Alliance’s picket line in 1939 to support the hiring of black clerks by a Washington, DC drugstore chain. After nine Scottsboro boys were found guilty of rape in three controversial Alabama trials in 1931, she spoke and demonstrated in support of the drive to free the nine defendants, which resulted in their convictions being overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1935. She was active in the efforts to gain rights for African American sharecroppers in the South, was a regular speaker at NAAP conferences and other civil rights organizations, and joined A. Philip Randolph’s March on Washington movement in 1941.
During the war years, the National Council of Negro Women, under Dr. Bethune’s leadership, focused on problems of African American women workers through a “Hold Your Job” campaign and worked for passage of a permanent Fair Employment Practice Committee. Among other projects, the council campaigned for the admission of African American women into the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAACS) and Women Appointed for Voluntary Emergency Service (WAVES), launched a liberty ship named for Harriet Tubman, participated in numerous conferences, and cooperated with other African American and women’s organizations in various activities to support the American war effort as well as the cause for civil rights. Bethune led the National Council of Negro Women’s “Buy War Bonds” drive and served as special assistant to the secretary of war for the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps. In 1944 she toured hospitals in the First, Second, and Third Service Commands, advising on the rehabilitation of America’s war veterans.
Dr. Bethune left her position in the government when the National Youth Administration ceased operations in 1944, and she resigned as president of the National Council of Negro Women in 1949 to retire to her home on the Bethune-Cookman College campus in Daytona Beach. This two-story, white frame residence, which had been constructed as her residence on the campus in 1914, would be designated a national historic landmark on December 2, 1974.
During her retirement, she remained active in the nation’s political life, receiving many honors as an African American leader. In 1951, for instance, President Harry S. Truman appointer her to his Committee of Twelve for National Defense. That same year, she became president of the Central Life Insurance Company of Florida, which she had helped found in the 1920s to provide insurance for African Americans in the state. In January 1952, she traveled to Liberia as an official U.S. representative to the second inaugural of President William V.S. Tubman. While there, she received that nation’s coveted Star of Africa Aware. In April of that year, the Board of Education of Englewood, New Jersey, canceled her engagement to speak in a public school because the House Committee on Un-American Activities has branded her a communist during the “red-baiting” years of the McCarthy era. A groundswell of public support, however, eventually made possible her appearance at the school.
In 1953 Bethune established the Mary McLeod Bethune Foundation as a nonprofit corporation to promote her social and educational ideals. Undaunted, she continued to champion democratic values and faith in the American creed until she died at her home as the result of a heart attack on May 18, 1955, at the age of 79. One of the South’s most well-known and prominent women, she was buried on a mound overlooking the campus of Bethune-Cookman College.