Mary McLeod Bethune

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 & TestamentExternal. [Originally published in Ebony (August 1955)] Bethune-Cookman University.

Portrait of Mary McLeod Bethune. Carl Van Vechten, photographer, Apr. 6, 1949. Van Vechten Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

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.

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Plessy v. Ferguson

On May 18, 1896, the Supreme Court ruled separate-but-equal facilities constitutional on intrastate railroads. For some fifty years, the Plessy v. Ferguson decision upheld the principle of racial segregation. Across the country, laws mandated separate accommodations on buses and trains, and in hotels, theaters, and schools.

The Court’s majority opinion denied that legalized segregation connoted inferiority. However, in a dissenting opinion, Justice John Marshall Harlan argued that segregation in public facilities smacked of servitude and abridged the principle of equality under the law.

Negro Drinking at “Colored” Water Cooler in Streetcar Terminal, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Russell Lee, photographer, July 1939. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives. Prints & Photographs Division
Negro Going in Colored Entrance of Movie House…Belzoni, Mississippi Delta, Mississippi. Marion Post Wolcott, photographer, Oct. 1939? Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives. Prints & Photographs Division

In a speech delivered in the Ohio House of Representatives in 1886 and later published as The Black Laws, legislator Benjamin W. Arnett described life in segregated Ohio:

I have traveled in this free country for twenty hours without anything to eat; not because I had no money to pay for it, but because I was colored. Other passengers of a lighter hue had breakfast, dinner and supper. In traveling we are thrown in “jim crow” cars, denied the privilege of buying a berth in the sleeping coach.

This foe of my race stands at the school house door and separates the children, by reason of ‘color,’ and denies to those who have a visible admixture of African blood in them the blessings of a graded school and equal privileges… We call upon all friends of ‘Equal Rights’ to assist in this struggle to secure the blessings of untrammeled liberty for ourselves and posterity.

The Black Laws. Hon. B. W. Arnett of Greene County in the Ohio House of Representative, March 10, 1886. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State Journal, 1886. African American Perspectives: Materials Selected from the Rare Book Collection. Rare Book & Special Collections Division

By the 1930s, the practice of racial segregation was widespread and vigorously maintained. When devastating floods hit Arkansas in 1937, for example, white refugees and black refugees were cared for in separate relief facilities. A series of Farm Security Administration photographs documenting the flood demonstrates the pervasive nature of segregation.

After hearing arguments by NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall, the Supreme Court overruled the Plessy decision on May 17, 1954. In Brown v. Board of Education, a unanimous Court adopted Justice Harlan’s position that segregation violated the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution.

A Greyhound Bus Trip from Louisville, Kentucky to Memphis, Tennessee…. Esther Bubley, photographer, Sept. 1943. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives. Prints & Photographs Division

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The following online research tools provide additional resources on African Americans and segregation, black laws, and the Jim Crow era.