Black History Month: Day 15 – The First Lady of the Struggle

In America, women of color have done a lot to make their mark in history. But rarely is this taught, and when it is, the list usually starts at Harriet Tubman and stops at Rosa Parks. With respect to Mrs. Parks and Mrs. Tubman, it would be a travesty not to include one of the most influential women in American history (of any race) in my series: Mary McLeod Bethune.

Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune

Daytona Beach, Florida. Bethune-Cookman College. Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, founder and former president and director of the NYA (National Youth Administration) Negro Relations (Gordon Parks / Library of Congress)

Mary McLeod Bethune was an American educator, stateswoman, philanthropist, humanitarian and civil rights activist best known for starting a private school for African-American students that developed into Bethune-Cookman University.

Mary Jane McLeod was born in 1875 in South Carolina, the fifteenth of seventeen children of former slaves. Her entire family continued to work for their former master as sharecroppers, but Mary’s fascination with books led her to attend school while her family picked cotton. She was the only child in her family to receive an academic education, so after walking five miles to and from school each day she taught her family what she learned. Later, she received a scholarship from the Scotia Seminary in North Carolina, and then the Dwight Moody’s Institute for Home and Foreign Missions in Chicago. After she completed her studies, she returned to the South to teach. She married Albertus Bethune in 1898 and lived and taught briefly in Georgia before relocating to Florida to run a mission school.

In 1904, Bethune decided to start a school for girls in Daytona, due to the popularity of the destination for tourism and economic opportunity.  Bethune knew she had to make sure her students had food to eat, sheets for their beds, books, and paper.   She would also need to ensure the school had money to pay the light bill and to pay faculty.  In order to make her school a reality, she went door-to-door asking for nickels, quarters, food, anything people could spare.  Bethune, along with parents of students and church members raised money by making sweet potato pies, ice cream, and fried fish, and selling them to crews at the nearby dump.  The school also received donations of money, equipment, and labor from local black churches.

Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls in Daytona

Mary McLeod Bethune with girls from the Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls in Daytona, c. 1905.

The Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls began in a small house she rented for $11 a month.  Bethune made benches and desks from discarded crates, and the students made ink for pens from elderberry juice, and pencils from burned wood; she also asked local businesses for furniture.  In the beginning, she started with just six students.  Within a year, Bethune was teaching more than 30 girls at the school.  And in two years, the school expanded to 250 students.

Bethune continued to gain support for her school, gaining men of influence such as James Gamble (of Procter & Gamble) and Thomas H. White (of White Sewing Machines) to sit on her board of trustees.  Bethune served as the school’s president, and she remained its leader even after it was combined with the Cookman Institute for Men in 1923 (some sources say 1929).  The merged institution became known as the Bethune-Cookman College.  Bethune-Cookman College was one of the few places that African-American students could pursue a college degree at the time. Bethune served as the college’s president until 1942.

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In addition to education, Mary McLeod Bethune spent her time advancing the interests of black women and civil rights. She served as the president of the Florida chapter of the National Association of Colored Women for many years, where she worked against white administrators and the Ku Klux Klan to register black voters.  In 1935, she founded the National Council of Negro Women, a coalition of black women’s organizations focused on ending segregation and discrimination and cultivating better international relationships and served as its president until 1949.  Bethune also invested in several businesses, including the Pittsburgh Courier, a black newspaper, and several life insurance companies.  She also founded Central Life Insurance of Florida.

Mary McLeod Bethune and Eleanor Roosevelt

Mary McLeod Bethune (left) and Eleanor Roosevelt (center), 1943.

Bethune also became involved in government service, lending her expertise to no less than five presidents. President Calvin Coolidge invited her to participate a conference on child welfare. She served on the Commission on Home Building and Home Ownership and was appointed to a committee on child health for President Herbert Hoover. In 1935, Bethune became a special advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt on minority affairs after becoming acquainted with Eleanor Roosevelt through her club work. The president’s wife used her influence to have Bethune appointed to the National Advisory Committee of the National Youth Administration (NYA), a New Deal agency established to help young people find employment during the Depression. During this time she used her access to form a coalition of leaders from black organizations called the Federal Council of Negro Affairs, also known as the Black Cabinet, to advise the Roosevelt administration on issues facing black people in America. In the early 1950s, President Harry Truman appointed her to a committee on national defense and as an official delegate to the presidential inauguration in Liberia. She also advised President Dwight Eisenhower.

Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial

Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial, Washington, D.C

In 1974, Bethune became the first woman of any race to be honored with a memorial in a public park when the federal government dedicated the Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial Statue at Lincoln Park in southeastern Washington, D.C. She received more accolades and honors than can be listed, but just for fun I’m going to include a list from the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House web page. I want to make it clear how extraordinary this woman was.

Teaching Experience:
Haines Institute, Augusta, Georgia, 1895-1896
Kindell Institute, Sumter, South Carolina, 1897-1898
Palatka Mission School, Palatka, Florida, 1899-1903
Founder – Daytona Normal and Industrial School for Negro Girls (Bethune-Cookman College, Daytona Beach, Florida), 1904
President – Bethune-Cookman College, 1904-1942

Honorary Degrees:
M.S. South Carolina State College, 1910
A.M. Wilberforce University, 1915
LL.D. Lincoln University (Pennsylvania), 1935
Doctor of Humanities, Bennett College, 1936
M.D. Tuskegee Institute, 1937
LL.D. Howard University, 1942
LL.D. Atlanta University, 1943
LL.D. Wiley College, 1943
Doctor of Humanities, West Virginia State College, 1947
Doctor of Humanities, Rollins College, 1949
Doctor of Humanities, Benedict College, 1950

(Too numerous to be listed). Among them:
Spingarn Medal (NAACP), 1935
Frances A. Drexel Award (Xavier University), 1937
First Annual Youth’s City Award (Daytona Beach), 1941
Thomas Jefferson Award (SCHW), 1942
Medal of Honor and Merit (Haiti), 1949
Star of Africa (Liberia), 1952
Dorie Miller Award, 1954

Government Service:
National Child Welfare Commission (Appointed by President Calvin Coolidge & President Herbert Hoover)
Commission on Home Building and Home Ownership (Appointed by President Herbert Hoover)
Special Advisor to President Franklin Roosevelt on Minority Affairs, 1935-1944
Director, Division of Negro Affairs, National Youth Administration, 1936-1944
Housing Board, Daytona Beach, Florida, 1938-
Special Assistant to the Secretary of War for the selection of candidates for Officer Training School for WAACS, 1942
Committee of Twelve for National Defense (Appointed by President Harry Truman), 1951
Official Delegate to the second inauguration of William V.S. Tubman as President of Liberia (Appointed by President Harry Truman), 1952

War Service:
Director, Florida Chapter American Red Cross
Member of Board of Directors, American Women’s Volunteer Services
General, Women’s Army for the National Defense
Toured General Hospitals of First, Second, and Third Service Commands advising on rehabilitation of veterans, 1944


Educational Organizations:
Florida State Teachers Organization (President)
American Teachers Association (President)
Board of Education, Methodist Church
National Commission on Christian Education, Association of American Colleges
Association for the Study of Negro Life and History
American Council on African Education Advisory Board
International Longfellow Society (Honorary President)
National Committee on Atomic Education Executive Board

Women’s Organizations:
National Association of Colored Women (President)
Florida State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs (President)
National Council of Women of the U.S.A. (Honorary Vice-President)
National Council of Negro Women (Founder & President)

Race Relations and Political Action Organizations:
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (Vice-President & Consultant to the conference to draft United Nations Charter, 1945)
National Urban League (Vice-President)
Commission on Interracial Cooperation (Vice-President)
Southern Conference for Human Welfare (Vice-President & Board of Representatives)
Southern Conference Educational Fund (Board of Directors)
League of Women Voters
Americans for Democratic Action

National Associations:
Good Neighbor Association of Daytona Beach, Florida

Religious Organizations:
General Conference of Methodist Church (Member 1923-1955)
Council of Church Women Executive Board
American Mothers Committee on Golden Rule Volunteers Board of Directors
Hadassah (Honorary Member)

Civic and Social Service Organizations:
Delinquent Home for Colored Girls, Ocala, Florida (Founder)
Social Service Commission of Methodist Church
Committee of Friends of the Atlanta School of Social Work
National Sharecroppers Fund Board
Planned Parenthood Federation of America (Sponsor)
Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. (Honorary Member of Board)
American Committee for Yugoslav Relief, Harlem Division Executive Committee (Honorary Chairman)

Afro-American Life Insurance Company, Inc. (Director)
Central Life Insurance Company, Inc. (President)
Bethune-Volusia Beach, Inc. (Founder & President)

Clubs and Sororities:

  • Cuban Society of Letters
  • Daughters of Elks
  • Delta Sigma Theta Sorority
  • Iota Phi Lambda Sorority
  • Lambda Kappa Mu Sorority


  • What the Negro Wants, edited by Rayford Logan (one chapter)
  • Spiritual Autobiographies, edited by Dr. Louis Finkelstein (one chapter)
  • Weekly Column in the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier
  • Articles in publications of the National Council of Negro Women, The Aframerican Woman’s Journal and Women United


  • Cook’s Tour of Europe, 1927
  • Bermuda, 1932
  • Throughout the U.S. with the National Youth Administration, 1936-1944
  • Haiti, 1949
  • Liberia, 1952
  • Switzerland, 1954

Basically, this woman did enough for this country to fill three lifetimes. Her life and work provide one of the major links between the social reform efforts post-Reconstruction and the political protest activities of the burgeoning 20th Century Civil Rights Movement. Bethune persisted in seeking equality for all blacks, especially women, through educational and economic opportunity. Her seat at the table paved the way for all of us.


Henry, Carma. “Mary McLeod Bethune – World Class Fundraiser.” The Westside Gazette, 2017. Web. 15 February 2017.

“Mary McLeod Bethune.” Wikipedia, n.d. Web. 15 February 2017.

“Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955).” Mary Mcleod Bethune House (National Park Service, n.d. Web. 15 February 2017.

“Mary McLeod Bethune Biography.”, n.d. Web. 15 February 2017.

Walker, Marlon A. “Mary McLeod Bethune: Educator and advocate for black women.” The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 2017. Web. 16 February 2017.

One thought on “Black History Month: Day 15 – The First Lady of the Struggle

  1. Pingback: Black History Month: Day 17 – The Pioneer of African-American hair care. | Travelbox Adventures

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