Mary McLeod Bethune was one of the most influential women in the 20th century. She was not only an educator, she was a civil and women’s rights leader and an advisor during President Franklin Roosevelt’s term.
Bethune was born on July 10, 1875, in South Carolina to two former slaves, Samuel and Patsy McLeod. She was one of the last children to be born out of 17.
In 1894, she graduated from Scotia Seminary in North Carolina, and she went on to attend Dwight Moody’s Institute for Home and Foreign Missions in Chicago, Illinois. Her plans of being a missionary declined because no church would sponsor her, so she became an educator in her home state.
Her time as an educator allowed her to meet her husband, Albertus Bethune. The two welcomed a baby boy in 1899. The married couple moved to Palatka, Florida, where Mrs. Bethune worked at the Presbyterian Church and sold insurance. Their marriage would end in 1904, so in order to keep her son, Bethune opened a boarding school, the Daytona Beach Literary and Industrial School for Training Negro Girls.
Her school would become a college, merging with the all-male Cookman Institute to become Bethune-Cookman College in 1929. Its first degrees were issued in 1943.
Bethune was an individual who believed in racial and gender equality, so she founded many organizations and hosted voter registration drives after women gained the right to vote in 1920.
In 1924, Bethune was elected president of the National Association of Colored Women’s Club and became the founding president of the National Council of Negro Women in 1935. She also contributed to the transition of Black voters from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party during the Great Depression.
The In 1936, she became the highest-ranking Black woman in the government when President Roosevelt honored her as the director of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration. Furthermore, she served as a leader of FDR’s unofficial “Black cabinet.”
And In 1937, she organized a conference to fight discrimination and lynching. In 1940, Bethune became vice president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons.
With her time spent on the advisory board for the Women’s Army Corps, she made sure it was racially integrated. Bethune was the only Black woman at the founding conference of the United Nations in 1945.
She also was a writer for the Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago Defender newspapers.
Bethune was a businesswoman who co-owned a resort in Daytona, Florida, and co-founded an insurance company in Tampa known as the Central Life Insurance Company.
She was honored with many awards, and her life’s work was recognized in 1974 when a memorial statue was built in Washington, D.C. In addition, she appeared on a postage stamp in 1985, and as of today, her final residence is a National Historic Site.
Bethune died of a heart attack in 1955 at the age of 79.