Mary Jane McLeod Bethune (July 10, 1875 – May 18, 1955) was an American educator and civil rights leader best known for starting a school for African American students in Daytona Beach, Florida, that eventually became Bethune-Cookman University and for being an advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Born in South Carolina to parents who had been slaves and having to work in fields at age five, she took an early interest in her own education. With the help of benefactors, Bethune attended college hoping to become a missionary in Africa. When that did not materialize, she started a school for African American girls in Daytona Beach. From six students it grew and merged with an institute for African American boys and eventually became the Bethune-Cookman School. Its quality far surpassed the standards of education for African American students, and rivaled those of schools for white students. Bethune worked tirelessly to ensure funding for the school, and used it as a showcase for tourists and donors, to exhibit what educated African-Americans could do. She was president of the college from 1923 to 1942 and 1946 to 1947, one of the few women in the world who served as a college president at that time.
Bethune was also active in women’s clubs, and her leadership in them allowed her to become nationally prominent. She worked for the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, and became a member of Roosevelt’s Black Cabinet, sharing the concerns of black people with the Roosevelt administration while spreading Roosevelt’s message to blacks, who had been traditionally Republican voters. Upon her death, columnist Louis E. Martin said, “She gave out faith and hope as if they were pills and she some sort of doctor.” Her home in Daytona Beach is a National Historic Landmark,her house in Washington, D.C. in Logan Circle is preserved by the National Park Service as aNational Historic Site,and a sculpture of her is located in Lincoln Park in Washington, D.C.
After demonstrating a desire to read and write, McLeod attended Mayesville’s one-room schoolhouse, Trinity Mission School that was run by thePresbyterian Board of Missions of Freedmen. Her teacher, Emma Jane Wilson, became a significant mentor in her life. Wilson had attendedScotia Seminary (now Barber-Scotia College), so arranged for McLeod to attend the same school on a scholarship, which she did from 1888-1894. She then attended Dwight L. Moody’s Institute for Home and Foreign Missions in Chicago (now the Moody Bible Institute), hoping to become amissionary in Africa. However, she was told that she would not be able to go because black missionaries were not needed, so she instead planned to teach.
She married Albertus Bethune in 1898 and they subsequently lived in Savannah, Georgia for a year while she did some social work. She was persuaded by a visiting Presbyterian minister named Coyden Harold Uggams (grandfather of entertainer Leslie Uggams) to relocate to Palatka, Florida to run a mission school. She did so in 1899 and began an outreach to prisoners and ran the mission school. Albertus left the family in 1907 and did not seek a divorce, but relocated to South Carolina. He died in 1918
In 1910, the enrollment of the school rose to 102, most of them being boarders. The success of the school was measured in its growing enrollment, addition of higher education courses, and the value of the school reaching $100,000 by 1920, with an enrollment of 351 students. Bethune renamed the school the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute and included courses to prepare teachers because she was finding difficulty staffing the school. The school merged with the Cookman Institute for Men from Jacksonville, Florida and became co-educational in 1923 and the value of the school’s eight buildings was reassessed at $250,000. The curriculum of the Bethune-Cookman School rivaled the segregated Daytona High School. In contrast, the Daytona Colored Public School neglected to provide education past the eighth grade until after 1920. An agent of the General Education Board noted that “Daytona is probably the best school for Negroes in Florida.”
However, Bethune constantly found it necessary to search for more funding; almost everywhere she went in her travels she begged for money for the school. A donation by John D. Rockefeller in 1905 for $62,000 helped, as did her friendship with the Roosevelts. Through the Great Depression, the school was able to function meeting the educational standards of the State of Florida. From 1936 to 1942 she served only part-time as president of the college as she had duties in Washington, DC, and the lower funding reflected her absence.By 1942 Bethune was forced to give up the presidency of the school as it had begun to affect her health.
Bethune founded the National Council of Negro Women in New York City in 1935 bringing together 28 different organizations to form a council to facilitate the improvement of quality of life for women and their communities. About the organization, Bethune stated: “It is our pledge to make a lasting contribution to all that is finest and best in America, to cherish and enrich her heritage of freedom and progress by working for theintegration of all her people regardless of race, creed, or national origin, into her spiritual, social, cultural, civic, and economic life, and thus aid her to achieve the glorious destiny of a true and unfettered democracy.”
The National Youth Administration (NYA) was a federal agency created with the support of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Bethune lobbied the organization so aggressively and effectively for minority involvement that she earned herself a full-time staff position in 1936 as an assistant. Within two years, Bethune was appointed to position of Director of the Division of Negro Affairs, and as such, became the first African-American female federal agency head. She was responsible for releasing NYA funds to help black students through school based programs.
Bethune played a dual role as close and loyal friend of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt. Eleanor Roosevelt respected Bethune to the extent that the segregation rules at the Southern Conference on Human Welfare in 1938, being held in Birmingham, Alabama, were changed on Roosevelt’s request so she could sit next to Bethune. Roosevelt frequently referred to Bethune as “her closest friend in her age group.” Bethune, in her turn took it upon herself to disperse the message of the Democratic Party to black voters, and make the concerns of black people known to the Roosevelts at the same time. She had unprecedented access to the White House through her relationship with the First Lady. She used it to form a coalition of leaders from black organizations called the Federal Council on Negro Affairs, but which came to be known as the Black Cabinet. The role of the Black Cabinet was to serve as an advisory board to the Roosevelt administration on issues facing black people in America. It gathered talented blacks in positions within federal agencies, creating the first collective of black people enjoying higher positions in government than ever before. It also served to show to voters that the Roosevelt administration cared about black concerns. The group gathered in Bethune’s office or apartment and met informally, rarely keeping minutes. Although as advisers they had little role in creating public policy, they were a respected leadership among black voters and were able to influence political appointments and disbursement of funds to organizations that would benefit black people.
Bethune stood five feet four inches tall and cut a matronly figure even in her 30s. Unlike other black personalities who were effective in part for their lighter skin, Bethune was notable for how dark her skin actually was; she was often described as “ebony” in complexion. She carried a cane with her, not for support but for effect. She said it gave her “swank”. She was a teetotaler and preached temperance for African Americans, taking opportunities to chastise drunken blacks she encountered in public.
Self-sufficiency was a high priority throughout her life. Bethune invested in several businesses in her life including the Pittsburgh Courier, a black newspaper, and several life insurance companies, one of which she began: Central Life Insurance of Florida. When blacks were not allowed to visit the beach, she and several other business owners invested in Paradise Beach, purchasing a 2-mile (3.2 km) stretch of beach and the surrounding properties, splitting it up and selling it to black families, and allowing white families to visit. Paradise Beach was later renamed to Bethune-Volusia Beach. She also was a part of the Welricha Motel in Daytona, of which she was one-fourth owner.
***Information Courtesy of Wikipedia.org***