Mary McLeod Bethune Biography

(American Civil Rights Activist and Founder of the 'National Council of Negro Women')

Birthday: July 10, 1875 (Cancer)

Born In: Mayesville, South Carolina, United States

Mary McLeod Bethune was an American educator, civil rights activist, teacher, humanitarian, and philanthropist, best known for her efforts toward uplifting the African–American community in the USA. She was born in a rice and cotton farm in South Carolina, into a family of former slaves. She was one of the 17 children in the family, and most of her siblings were born as slaves. She was the only one from her family to attend school. Her parents desired freedom and had struggled very hard to buy a little farm of their own. She studied hard to become a missionary in Africa, but she came to know that missionaries were not needed anymore, so she became a teacher in the USA, emphasizing character and practical education for girls. She started a school for African–American girls in Daytona, Florida, which later merged with a private institute with the same aim, becoming the ‘Bethune-Cookman School.’ She became the president of the school in 1923 and thus became the first-ever black woman to become a president of a college in the USA. She actively participated in many events and emerged as a strong black-rights leader. President Franklin D. Roosevelt invited her to be part of his ‘Black Cabinet.’ She passed away on May 18, 1955, at the age of 79.

Quick Facts

Also Known As: Mary Jane McLeod Bethune, Mary Jane McLeod

Died At Age: 79


Spouse/Ex-: Albertus Bethune (m. 1898–1918)

father: Sam Bethune

mother: Patsy McLeod

siblings: Beauregard McLeod, Maria McLeod, Rachel McLeod, Samuel McLeod, William Thomas McLeod

Born Country: United States

Humanitarian African American Women

Died on: May 18, 1955

place of death: Daytona Beach, Florida, United States

U.S. State: South Carolina

Notable Alumni: Moody Bible Institute, Johnson C. Smith University, Barber–Scotia College

Cause of Death: Heart Attack

More Facts

education: Moody Bible Institute, Johnson C. Smith University, Barber–Scotia College

awards: Spingarn Medal
National Women's Hall of Fame
Florida Women's Hall of Fame

  • 1

    What impact did Mary McLeod Bethune have on education?

    Mary McLeod Bethune was a prominent educator and civil rights activist who founded the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls in Florida, which later merged with the Cookman Institute to become Bethune-Cookman College. She dedicated her life to advancing education for African Americans and promoting racial equality.

  • 2

    How did Mary McLeod Bethune contribute to the civil rights movement?

    Mary McLeod Bethune was a key figure in the civil rights movement, advocating for equal rights and opportunities for African Americans. She was a close advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and played a significant role in promoting civil rights legislation and policies.

  • 3

    What was the significance of Mary McLeod Bethune's role in the National Council of Negro Women?

    Mary McLeod Bethune founded the National Council of Negro Women in 1935, aiming to unite African American women's organizations to address social issues affecting the black community. Through the council, she worked to improve the lives of African American women and children and promote racial and gender equality.

  • 4

    How did Mary McLeod Bethune contribute to women's rights?

    Mary McLeod Bethune was a vocal advocate for women's rights and fought for equal opportunities for women in education, employment, and leadership roles. She believed in the importance of empowering women to be leaders and change-makers in society.

  • 5

    What was the legacy of Mary McLeod Bethune in the field of education and civil rights?

    Mary McLeod Bethune's legacy in education and civil rights is profound. She established schools, advocated for equal educational opportunities, and fought for civil rights and social justice. Her tireless efforts laid the foundation for progress in the fields of education and civil rights for future generations.

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.”
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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.
Facts About Mary McLeod Bethune

Mary McLeod Bethune was an avid supporter of civil rights and women's rights, and she founded the National Council of Negro Women to advocate for racial and gender equality.

She was a visionary educator who established the Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls, which later evolved into Bethune-Cookman University.

Mary McLeod Bethune served as an advisor to several U.S. presidents, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, on issues related to minority affairs and education.

She was the first African American woman to head a federal agency, serving as the director of the Division of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration.

Mary McLeod Bethune was a prolific writer and speaker, using her platform to inspire and empower others to pursue education and social change.

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