Washington -- July 14, 2022: Mary McLeoud Bethune born in Mayesville, South Carolina, on July 10, 1875, as the first member of her family to be born free. A statue of her was placed in the National Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol,
the first representing a Black American, also replacing a statue of a confederate general.
Bethune was a devoted educator and advisor to the president. Throughout her lengthy career in public service, she became one of the earliest black female campaigners, laying the groundwork for the modern civil rights movement.
She was an educator, community organizer, public policy advisor, public health champion, advisor to the President of the United States, patriot, and mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. All in service of her unrelenting pursuit of what she termed "inalienable citizenship rights for African-Americans."
Bethune was born in 1875, the fifteenth of seventeen children born to former slaves, during the inception of Jim Crow and the anti-Black violence that would haunt the South for the remainder of her life. Patsy and Samuel McLeod maintained a small farm near Mayesville, South Carolina, around the time of their daughter's birth. They pushed their inquisitive daughter to attend a mission school, where she flourished since they were deeply religious. Mary McLeod obtained a scholarship to complete her education at Scotia Seminary for Negro Girls in Concord, North Carolina, and spent one year at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. During her time at Scotia and Moody, she established her "female empowerment" attitude and her enthusiasm for preparing girls for leadership roles in their communities.
Mary McLeod married Albertus Bethune in 1898, and they had a son, Albert, in 1899. Her marriage to Albertus lasted nine turbulent years. The family relocated from Savannah, Georgia to Palatka, Florida, where she taught at a tiny mission school. In 1904, the family relocated once more to Daytona, Florida, where she established the Daytona Educational and Industrial School for Black Girls. A few years later, in 1907, Albertus abandoned the family and returned to South Carolina, resulting in the dissolution of their marriage. Bethune claimed herself as a widow in the 1910 census, despite the couple never having divorced. However, her estranged spouse did not die until 1918.
Bethune successfully negotiated the merging of her Daytona, Florida institution with the Cookman Institute in Jacksonville, Florida in 1923. Together, they established the four-year coeducational Bethune-Cookman College. She was already a highly renowned leader in Black education and among Black women's groups at the time of the merger. Bethune collaborated with the Florida Federation of Colored Women's clubs to establish a home for delinquent Black girls in Ocala, Florida, in addition to her school. She was the president of the Southeastern Federation of Colored Women's Clubs from 1920 to 1925, the National Association of Teachers in Colored Schools from 1923 to 1924, and the National Association of Colored Women from 1925 to 1929. (1924-1928.) Her participation on local, regional, and national boards increased her standing as a leader in the Black community. In 1935, while continuing to serve as president of Bethune-Cookman College, she established the National Council of Negro Women.
Her involvement with the college, national organizations, and political lobbying led President Herbert Hoover to invite her to a White House conference in 1930. Bethune took advantage of the opportunity and departed the conference as the most prominent champion and voice for African Americans in the United States.
During the depths of the Great Depression and the promise of the New Deal, Bethune switched from the Republican party to the Democratic party and committed herself wholeheartedly to the improvement of the lives of African Americans. Bethune ranked eighth on a 1931 list of the most notable living American women. She utilized her position to advocate for racial and gender equality and normal family life for racial advancement.
Bethune was introduced to the Roosevelts in 1927 and backed their presidential campaign. Regular access to the President was made possible by the President's close friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt. President Roosevelt charged her with joining the National Youth Administration in 1936, and by 1939 she had been elevated to the position of Director of Negro Affairs. Bethune was the highest-paid African-American in government at the time, earning $5,000 as director. Under her direction as Director, NYA hired hundreds of thousands of young African American men and women and developed a "Negro College and Graduate Fund" that sponsored over 4,000 college students.
She maintained her work with the Roosevelt administration by establishing and leading the informal "Black Cabinet." Bethune created the word in 1936, and it was commonly used to designate President Roosevelt's counselors on matters affecting Black communities. The Black Cabinet focused on anti-lynching legislation, attempts to outlaw poll taxes in the South, and welfare, as well as collaborating with New Deal organizations to offer employment opportunities for jobless African Americans. During World War II, the cabinet also helped design the presidential executive orders that abolished the exclusion of African Americans from the armed military and defense sectors. The influence of the Black Cabinet developed as a result of Mary McLeod Bethune's exceptional access to the President and the first lady. Cabinet work finally established the political groundwork for what would become the current civil rights movement.
During World War II, she was prominent in raising African-American support for the war effort. She advocated actively for equal opportunity in the military sector and the armed forces. In a 1941 speech, she eloquently expressed the sentiment of equality: "Despite the attitude of some employers in refusing to hire Negros to perform needed, skilled services, and despite the denial of the same opportunities and courtesies to our youth in the armed forces of our country, we must not fail America, and as Americans, we must not allow America to fail us."
Mary McLeod Bethune
She organized campaigns for war bonds and blood donations and pushed African American women to staff the nation's numerous canteens. Bethune also served as the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps' special assistant to the Secretary of War. She was responsible for helping to build a training school and recruiting Black women for army officer training in her capacity as Special Assistant.
Bethune received the title of honorary General of the Women's Army for National Defense. In July 1943, after the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps was moved to active duty, she also acted as a consultant for the new Women's Army Corps. As a consultant for the WAC and WAND, she successfully persuaded President Roosevelt to remove segregation in veteran rehabilitation institutions and routinely briefed him on incidents of brutality against African-American service members in the South.
Bethune remained the President's closest advisor until his death. On April 12, 1945, Roosevelt's death was announced while she was delivering a speech in Dallas, Texas. She had attended his second, third, and fourth inaugurations. She returned to Washington immediately and participated in a nationwide radio program honoring President Roosevelt.
After the war, Bethune assisted the American delegation in drafting the United Nations charter as an associate consultant. During the negotiations, she prioritized the rights of individuals living in colonized nations around the globe. She departed the summit with a profound sense of dissatisfaction, as she did not obtain the freedom, human rights, and self-determination that she so much desired.
In 1949, she was invited to Haiti to receive the "Medal of Accolade and Merit," the nation's highest civilian honor. She also flew to Liberia as President Truman's representative, where she was awarded Liberia's highest honor, the Commander of the Order of the Star of Africa. She obtained eleven honorary degrees from Black and white universities throughout the course of her life, including one from Rollins College, where she was the first African-American to receive such an award in the whole South.
Her legacy endured after her passing in May 1955. She was the first African-American woman to receive a national monument in the nation's capital. In her honor, schools, public parks, and roadways have been named. Bethune-Cookman University, one of the top 50 historically Black institutions and universities, is her biggest legacy.
Bethune retained her patriotism despite countless instances of bigotry and false claims that she was a communist sympathizer, as summed up well by historian Audrey Thomas McCluskey in her article. She had steadfast patriotism, a strong sense of racial pride, and even used a cane that had belonged to her buddy, President Franklin Roosevelt. McCluskey stated, "She lived over 80 years, spanning the post-Reconstruction period and the beginning of the modern civil rights struggle."
Dr. Bethune said in her dying will and testament dated 1955, "I leave you with hope. In the coming years, the African-American population will increase significantly. Our ancestors faced the humiliation of slavery in the past, yet they maintained their dignity. Today, we focus our efforts on attaining a more prosperous and secure life. Tomorrow, a new Negro, free of racial taboos and fetters, will reap the rewards of almost 330 years of unremitting struggle. Their world will be a better one. I believe this wholeheartedly."
Wnctimes by Marjorie Farrington
Photo Image: LOC Public Domain Archive