Mary McLeod Bethune left a legacy of empowering women and minorities through education and access to services. Read more about this amazing woman, and her impact on generations of Americans.
As Women’s History Month comes to a close, we’re shining a spotlight on the “First Lady of the Struggle.” With more than 15 schools across the US named for her, Mary McLeod Bethune’s legacy in education is well deserved. She was an instrumental part in laying the groundwork for the civil and women’s rights movements, lead countless civic and educational organizations, was an advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and co-founded the United Negro College Fund.
Mary Jane McLeod was born on July 10, 1875 near Mayesville, South Carolina. She was one of 17 siblings - many of whom were born into slavery. After the end of the Civil War, and her family’s emancipation, her parents sacrificed and worked hard to be able to buy land where they could all live and work as farmers. Mary began working on the farm at the age of 5! Her parents were very religious and enrolled Mary in a mission school where she excelled in her studies. In fact, she later won a scholarship to continue her studies at Scotia Seminary for Negro Girls in Concord, North Carolina. Although her desire was to be a missionary, Mary wasn’t able to find a church to sponsor her, so she decided to focus her efforts on teaching instead. For a short time, Mary worked as a teacher at her former elementary school in South Carolina. Then in 1896, she moved to Augusta, Georgia, and began teaching at Haines Normal and Industrial Institute; part of a Presbyterian mission organized by northern congregations.
In 1898, McLeod married Albertus Bethune, and the couple moved to Savannah, Georgia. The following year the couple relocated to Florida where Mary ran a mission school and began an outreach to prisoners. Unfortunately, the marriage was short-lived, and in 1907 Albertus left Mary and their son, Albert, and moved to South Carolina. Although the couple never divorced, Mary did register as a widow in the following census. Mary McLeod Bethune became singularly focused on starting a school for girls. In 1904, she rented a small house and got materials for furniture and other items through charity to start the Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls. The schools started with only 6 students, but within a year had increased enrollment to 30. In addition to her engenuity in getting supplies, the school also survived by her fundraising abilities. Mary’s reach expanded beyond the African-American community. She met with wealthy white organizations to help in her endeavors - in part at the recommendation of Booker T. Washington.
In the 20 years between 1917 and 1937, Mary took on leadership roles in numerous public organizations. She served as president of the National Association of Colored Women where she gained national recognition for her work to support the black community. In 1920, the Southeastern Association of Colored Women's Clubs elected her president. As she did when she started her first school, Mary McLeod Bethune enlisted support from the white community to help bring awareness to her cause. In 1935, she founded the National Council of Negro Women, and during WWII the organization fought to get black women enlisted as officers in the Women’s Army Corp. During her time with the NCNW, she also served as the Special Assistant to the Secretary of War. In 1938, just two years after her appointment as a secretary in the National Youth Administration, Mary McLeod Bethune was made the Director of the Division of Negro Affairs. Each of these roles helped push her onto a national stage where she gained notoriety for working for the rights, status and education equality of America’s black and women citizens.
It was during this time of public service, in 1927, when Mary was introduced to Eleanor Roosevelt in a meeting that would end up shaping the lives of African Americans for years to come. She would become a close friend to not only the First Lady, but also Franklin D Roosevelt. In addition to having the President’s ear on civil rights issues, she also helped establish what would come to be known as the Black Cabinet. This group of leaders from black organizations counseled the Roosevelt administration on policies affecting African Americans. They didn’t have the power to enact laws, they did influence many of the budgetary spending items and political appointments that supported black community.
Mary McLeod Bethune’s life was spent working to create opportunities for women and minorities. And in 1944, she helped establish the United Negro College Fund (UNCF). The philanthropic organization continues to help provide scholarships for minorities and those students attending historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). A little more than 10 years after co-founding UNCF, Mary died of a heart attack. After her passing, countless news outlets across the country heralded the praises of the “First Lady of the Struggle.”