Educator and political leader Mary McLeod Bethune died at the age of eighty on May 18, 1955, in Daytona Beach, Florida. Born in Mayesville, South Carolina, in 1875, Bethune was one of the last of Samuel and Patsy McLeod’s seventeen children. Former slaves, her parents were leaders of Mayesville’s African-American community.
We live in a world which respects power above all things. Power, intelligently directed, can lead to more freedom.
“Dr. Bethune’s Last Will & Testament External.” [Originally published in Ebony (August 1955)] Bethune-Cookman University.
Bethune grasped the importance of education early on. Despite poverty, her family managed to send her to the local mission school. With help from a patron, she attended Scotia Seminary in North Carolina and Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. After nearly a decade of teaching, she opened her own school, the Daytona Educational and Industrial School for Negro Girls in Daytona Beach, Florida (now Bethune-Cookman College).
With an initial investment of just $1.50, Bethune created an educational institution that served students and community. As president of the college from 1904-42, her efforts on behalf of the school garnered national attention. As a result, she served as vice president of the National Urban League, president of the National Association of Colored Women and as an advisor on minority issues to presidents Coolidge and Hoover.
In 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt made Bethune director of the Division of Negro Affairs, National Youth Administration, then the highest government position ever held by an African-American woman. Simultaneously, she served the Roosevelt administration as a special adviser on minority affairs. She was also appointed a special assistant to the secretary of war to oversee the selection of candidates for the Women’s Army Corps, one of many influential positions she held during the 1940s. Bethune spent her final years writing and traveling.
- The Mary McLeod Bethune Council House in Washington, D.C. is the site of Bethune’s last residence in the District and the first headquarters of the National Council of Negro Women External, which she founded in 1935.
- Search African American Perspectives: Materials Selected from the Rare Book Collection on National Association of Colored Women to learn more about this organization.
- To learn more about historically black colleges, see the Today in History features on Howard University and Fisk University.
- Search on Bethune or Bethune-Cookman College in the pictorial collections for photographs including Dr. Bethune, students, and campus life.
- The African-American Experience in Ohio, 1850-1920 External contains many newspaper articles about African Americans and the issues affecting them. See, for example, this 1918 article from the Cleveland Advocate External, headlined “Vice President Dedicates Mrs. Bethune’s School External.” A search on the word school reveals many additional items concerning this important topic.
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