Childhood & Early Life
Mary McLeod Bethune was born Mary Jane McLeod Bethune, on July 10, 1875, in Mayesville, South Carolina, to Sam Bethune and Patsy McLeod. Both her parents were slaves formerly. When she was born, her mother was still working for her former master whom she served prior to the abolishment of slavery. Mary was born in a small log cabin in a rice and cotton farm.
Her father was a farmer who farmed cotton near a large house they called "The Homestead.” Mary was born as the 15th of her 17 siblings. Most of her siblings, born before 1863, were born straight into slavery. Following the abolishment of slavery, her parents became independent but struggled financially.
As a child, Mary worked with her mother, delivering “white people’s” wash. She was somehow allowed to go into the white people’s nursery and became fascinated with their toys. She did not understand the concept of slavery back then. One day, she picked up a book, and as she opened it, a white child snatched it away from her, babbling she did not know how to read. Mary decided then that the only difference between white and colored people was the ability to read and write. This inspired Mary, and she decided to educate herself.
She then began attending Mayesville’s one-room school for black children, known as the ‘Trinity Mission School.’ She was the only one from her family who had ever attended a school, and she taught her family what she learned in school each day.
It was not easy. She walked five miles to go to school and get back home. She had a teacher named Emma Jane Wilson, whom she credited as her idol. Emma helped Mary secure a scholarship to attend the ‘Scotia Seminary’ school, which she attended from 1888 to 1893. She further attended Dwight L. Moody's ‘Institute for Home and Foreign Missions’ in 1894, in an attempt to become a missionary and work in Africa.
She was told that missionaries were not needed in Africa. Hence, she decided that she would stay back in the USA and teach African–American kids.
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Mary moved back to her hometown of Mayesville and began working as her teacher Emma’s assistant. In 1896, she further moved to Augusta, Georgia, and began teaching at the ‘Haines Normal and Industrial Institute.’ Soon, she realized that her missionary work was needed more in the USA than in Africa. She began looking for ways to start her own school.
In 1899, Mary moved to Florida and began teaching at a mission school there. Mary moved there with her husband and her son, and the family stayed in Palatka, Florida, for the next 5 years. Mary also began a side job, selling life insurance policies to the African–Americans there.
Mary and her family further moved to Daytona and rented a small house. She had planned to gather some donations and fulfil her lifelong dream of starting her own school.
In October 1904, Mary began her school for all-black girls. It was named the ‘Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute’ and had only five children in the beginning, along with her son. The children paid a minimal amount and learned the basics of religion, business, academics, and industrial skills.
Mary moved around the city looking for donations. She faced severe backlash from white supremacist elements such as the ‘Ku Klux Klan’ (KKK), but she was not afraid and stood strongly by her school and students.
By 1906, the school had more than 250 children, as over time, she had also begun teaching adults. However, her husband was not too fond of her ways and left the family in 1907. Unshaken, Mary carried on with her school as it grew bigger with donations from rich local families.
As the students grew in number, she bought another building called the ‘Faith Hall.’ She had also begun accepting donations from white people, for which she was somehow criticized, but she made decisions keeping her students’ future in mind.
The ‘Cookman Institute for Men’ in Jacksonville, Florida, showed interest in a merger in the early 1920s. Mary knew that in order to take care of the ever-growing expenses of the school, she had to go ahead with the offer. The school thus became the ‘Bethune–Cookman College’ in 1929, with 600 students studying in it. She became the president of the school the same year and remained on the post until 1942, thus becoming the first black American college president.
She believed that the upliftment of black women was the key to a greater life for all African–American people in America. She toured around giving fiery speeches and felt overjoyed when black women were granted voting rights in 1920.
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She then became the president of the ‘National Association of Colored Women.’ Later, in 1935, she founded the ‘National Council of Negro Women.’ The organization worked toward addressing discrimination against black women.
Throughout her life, she faced threats of violence from various pro-white groups, such as the ‘KKK’ but she did not move an inch from her stand as an activist working toward the betterment of black lives in the country.
During the 1932 presidential election, she worked on the campaign for candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt. When he became the president, he made her a member of his ‘Black Cabinet.’
President Harry Truman also appointed her to a committee on national defense. She was appointed to serve as an official delegate to a presidential inauguration in Liberia.
An early member of the ‘National Association for the Advancement of Colored People,’ she helped represent the group at the 1945 conference on the founding of the ‘United Nations,’ along with W.E.B. DuBois.
Family & Personal Life
Mary McLeod Bethune married Albertus Bethune in 1898. Albertus Bethune, too, was a teacher. She gave birth to her son, Albertus Mc Leod Bethune Jr., in 1899.
The couple separated in 1907, and Albertus left for South Carolina, where he died of tuberculosis a few years later. Their son stayed with Mary.
Death & Honors
Mary McLeod Bethune passed away from a heart attack on May 18, 1955. She was buried in the ground of her school. Her grave only read “mother.”
Her home in Daytona Beach was declared a “National Historic Landmark.” Her house in Washington, D.C. was further named a “National Historic Site.”
In 1974, a sculpture of her teaching was installed at Washington, D.C.’s ‘Lincoln Park.’ She became the first African–American to receive this honor.
The college she started runs strong to this day and keeps inspiring the younger generation, reminding them of a woman who dedicated all her life to uplift the oppressed black community of the USA.