Mary McLeod Bethune

Mary McLeod Bethune 1875-1955

An extraordinary and influential figure in the fight for the education and rights of black Americans.

Bethune was born in South Carolina in 1875 to two former slaves. The end of the American Civil War gave the black American population an opportunity to gain an education. Bethune attended boarding school; the Scotia Seminary in North

Carolina from which she graduated in 1894. She then wanted to go into missionary work but found that no church was willing to sponsor her. She later decided to go into education and taught in her home state.

Later she would move to Florida with her then husband and young son and would work at a church, selling insurance on the side. Her marriage would fail, but she became even more determined to better herself and the society in which she
lived. In 1904, she went on to open the Daytona Beach Literary and Industrial School for Training Negro Girls; a boarding school which is now the Bethune-Cookman university.

Bethune was heavily involved in issues surrounding race and gender and after women gained the vote in 1920, Bethune started many organisations which would hold voting drives; often becoming the target of many racial attacks. In 1935, she
founded the National Council of Negro Women which she would remain the president of until 1949. She was also vice president of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People from 1940 until 1955.

Bethune was an active individual during the Second World War, serving as a special assistant to the secretary of war for the Women’s Auxiliary Corps. She also organised blood donation drives for the war and encouraged many African
American women to help in canteens around the country. She even helped to establish a training school and recruited many black women for army officer training. The National WWII Museum in New Orleans said of Bethune;

(she) ‘was a passionate educator and presidential advisor. In her long career of public service, she became one of the earliest black female activists that helped lay the foundation to the modern civil rights movement.’

Bethune would continue to help improve most aspects of the lives of her fellow black Americans and encourage them to do the same. In her last will and testament written in 1955, Bethunewrote:

“I leave you hope. The Negro’s growth will be great in the years to come. Yesterday our ancestors endured the degradation of slavery, yet they retained their dignity. Today, we direct our strength toward winning a
more abundant and secure life. Tomorrow, a new Negro, unhindered by race taboos and shackles, will benefit from more than 330 years of ceaseless struggle. Theirs will be a better world. This I believe with all my heart.”


Bethune was an extraordinary lady with a strength that is admirable. Her wonderfully eventful life was honoured by a statue in Washington D.C in 1974.

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