Mary Jane McLeod Bethune (July 10, 1875 – May 18, 1955) was a dedicated educator and civil rights leader. She is best known for starting a school for black students in Daytona Beach, Florida (now Bethune-Cookman University). She is also known for her role as an advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and as a friend to Eleanor Roosevelt.
Mary Jane McLeod was born on July 10, 1875, in a log cabin on a small rice and cotton farm near Mayesville, South Carolina. She was the fifteenth of seventeen children. Both of her parents and several of her older siblings had been born as slaves. After emancipation, her mother continued to work for her former owner, while her father farmed cotton near a large house called 'The Homestead.' Her parents worked incredibly hard to be able to buy their farm and provide a strong financial foundation for their children.
Her parents prized self-sufficiency and service, and they instilled the same values in their children. Many of Mary's earliest memories involved books and learning. When Mary was still a very small child, she was playing alongside a child of her mother's employer. The white child found Mary looking at a book, and grabbed it away from her, telling her she couldn't read because she was black.
The cabin in Mayesville, South Carolina, where Mary McLeod was born. Photo source: The Freeman Institute Foundation
Mary was undeterred, and when the Trinity Mission School -- a free school for black children run by the Presbyterian Board of Missions for Freemen -- opened nearby, Mary happily walked the four miles each way to attend classes just so she could learn to read. Her mother remarked that while many kids had to be forced to go, young Mary, the first in her family to attend school, seemed to know that education would be her route out of poverty.
It was here where she met her teacher and mentor, Emma Jane Wilson, a graduate of the all female Presbyterian Board of Missions' Scotia Seminary (now Barber-Scotia College), a school dedicated to providing young black women with a secondary education, and training to become teachers and social workers, located in North Carolina. Inspired by the work of her teacher, Mary hoped to also study at Scotia and to eventually become a missionary in Africa. Mary was a determined student, and her achievements were so impressive, Miss Wilson went out of her way to secure a scholarship for Mary to be able to attend Scotia, which she did from 1888 until 1894.
After graduating, her benefactress sent her the funds to attend a two-year course at Dwight L. Moody's Institute for Home and Foreign Missions (now the Moody Bible Institute) in Chicago, where she intended to train for missionary work abroad. While there, she was the only African American woman, and one of only a few non-whites attending classes. Unfortunately, her dream of becoming a missionary in Africa was thwarted when she was informed that black missionaries were not being sent to Africa at that time. Disappointed but undaunted, she directed her energies to becoming a teacher, with the possibility of becoming a 'home missionary' -- someone who served within the United States as a teacher or social worker.
"Africans in America needed Christ and schooling just as much... My life work lay not in Africa but in my own country."After graduating, she remained in Chicago for year, where her dedication to public service was only strengthened by her work visiting prisoners in jail and work with the Pacific Garden Mission, where she served lunches to the homeless and and gave assistance to people living in the growing slums of the city.
A young Mary McLeod Bethune. Photo source: Emory University
Mary was only at the Haines school for a year, but in that time she was strongly influenced by Laney's teaching philosophy and her personal strength.
"I was so impressed with her fearlessness, her amazing touch in every respect, an energy that seemed inexhaustible and her mighty power to command respect and admiration from her students and all who knew her. She handled her domain with the art of a master."While the school was primarily dedicated to teaching girls, Laney would not turn away boys who appeared. Mary shared Laney's belief that the way to improve the lives of all black people lay in the task of educating black girls and women.
"I believe that the greatest hope for the development of my race lies in training our women thoroughly and practically."In 1897, she was sent to teach at the Kendall Institute in Sumter, South Carolina. Here, she met Albertus Bethune, and the two were married in 1898. The next year, they moved to Savannah, Georgia, where Albertus had a job lined up. Their son, Albert, was born later that year as well. Mary continued to do social work while caring for Albert, but it was evident early on that she could not be content as a homemaker.
Mary McLeod Bethune, c. 1910 or '11. Photo source: Florida Memory
Mary was frustrated by her lack of opportunity to follow her calling to public service. A pastor from Palatka, Florida, was visiting Savannah, and convinced her to join him as manager of the mission school he was opening there. Her little family moved again. Mary taught classes and ran an outreach program visiting prisoners in the local jail, where she read and sometimes sang to them. Albertus had troubling finding steady employment, and in addition to her teaching duties and social work, Mary sold life insurance to make ends meet. The relationship between Mary and Albertus was strained, but Mary put her energies into expanding the Palatka school and improving its curriculum.
Over her five years at the Palatka Mission School it began to thrive, but Mary still felt unsatisfied. She believed that her calling was to help young black women specifically, and in order to realize this goal, she would need to found her own school. She began to search out possible locations, and on the recommendation of a visiting pastor, she finally settled on Daytona Beach, Florida. In fact, this decision would have far-reaching benefits in later years. Daytona Beach had more robust economy than either Palatka or Sumter, because of its growth as a tourist destination for wealthy white liberals from the North East, as well as a large community of blacks who worked for the Florida East Coast Railroad and were desperate for educational opportunities for their children.
In 1904, with her son Albert in tow, she rented a room in a boarding house and immediately set to work finding a suitable space. She finally found a rundown building next to the local dump. The landlord was convinced to take a down payment of only $1.50. To be able to afford the $11 a month rent, she had to come up with tuition and donations, which meant she had to open as quickly as possible. The space was completely bare, and she went around town locating donated or discarded furnishings, and other items her students would need, many of which she had to build or repair herself. Her desk was an old barrel, and many of the seats were simple crates. She used elderberry juice to make ink for the ink wells, and burned wood to fashion pencils.
"I haunted the city dump and the trash piles behind hotels, retrieving discarded linen and kitchen ware, cracked dishes, broken chairs, pieces of old lumber. Everything was scoured and mended."In October of 1904, the Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls (also referred to as the Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls in Daytona) opened with only five students, each paying a tuition of 50 cents a week.
Mary McLeod Bethune with a line of girls from her school: Daytona Beach, Florida, c. 1905. Photo source: Florida Memory
This may have been Mary's first school, but she was no novice. She'd learned from some of the best. She knew precisely what courses should be offered, and how to engender support from her community as well as those with political power and wealth. The curriculum of her school reflected her philosophy that the financial independence of each young woman would be the key to her success in life as an African American in the Deep South. In addition to academic and religious studies, her students were expected to learn the domestic skills that would help them find jobs to support themselves -- housekeeping, weaving, cooking, sewing, etc. This philosophy was in line with that being advanced by Booker T. Washington and others. In fact, Bethune had met Washington in 1896, and was honored to receive him as a visitor to her school in 1912. During her struggle to get her school going, she had a dream where he had visited her, holding out a dirty handkerchief, from him he produced a large diamond, which he handed to her and said, "Here, take this and build you school."
Two years later, in 1906, it was clear that her school was a success, and that there was need for a larger building. Bethune set out on a new drive to raise money to move the school to a larger, more permanent building. The community rallied behind her, and parents of students and members of local black churches helped to raise funds by cooking and selling sweet potato pies, ice cream, and fried fish, among other things. Bethune went door-to-door looking for donations, put on fund-raising concerts singing spirituals in the hotels entertaining their wealthy white guests, and reached out to prominent members of the larger community for assistance. In 1907, with the help of wealthy businessmen, she was able to purchase land and build a brick school. It was also at this time that her marriage to Albertus effectively ended. He left the family and moved back to South Carolina, although he never filed for a divorce. He died in 1918.
Sewing and needlework classes at Daytona Normal and Industrial School, c. 1905. Photo source: Florida Memory
Also following the example set by Washington, she found it helpful to seek assistance from wealthy white organizations. In particular, she received a generous donation of $62,000 (roughly worth $1 million in today's economy) from John D. Rockefeller in 1905. But she also reached out to local organizations, such as the ladies of the Palmetto Club of Daytona as well as other wealthy and well-connected women from around the country (and even as far away as England), for assistance, often asking them to serve on the Women's Advisory Board. Women serving on the board were active in generating publicity and fund-raising for her school as well as offering guidance on administration, although there were several 'celebrity' members as well, including Jane Addams of Chicago's Hull House.
She also sought out powerful white men to sit on the Trustee Board -- men like the inventor of Ivory soap, James N. Gamble of Procter & Gamble. She knew that these men and women would help bridge the gap between the races in Daytona, and to foster that she instituted integrated Sunday afternoon Community Meetings intended to entertain as well as inform the members of both the white and the black communities about the school's goals and successes.
As her school continued to grow, including many boarders, she continued to add more education courses. By 1916, she was able to offer a complete high school curriculum, and included nursing, teaching, and business classes to serve the calls for more black teachers, nurses, and secretaries. By 1920, the school had 351 students. She renamed it the Daytona Normal an Industrial Institute to reflect the changes in the curriculum.
Daytona Normal and Industrial School students at their barn, c. 1912. Photo source: Florida Memory
Despite the demonstrated academic success of the school, it was a constant struggle to find funding. She had to continually do fund-raising work to keep up with the bills. Even with all the support from wealthy investors and her community, it still did not meet the needs of the school. This can be directly attributed to racist beliefs about educating blacks, and especially black girls. While similar school for whites were routinely well-funded, black schools were given donations that were effectively "left-over" money. And white schools could count on higher tuition from the families of their students, while Bethune's school and others, served a much poorer segment of the community. Additionally, they did not receive money from the state as they were not accredited, and could not apply for accreditation because they served black students. Add the Great Depression to this already stressful economic state of affairs, and it is no surprise that Bethune truly ran herself ragged looking for funding.
Finally, in 1923, the school was merged with the Cookman Institute for Men from Jacksonville, Florida, one of the first schools for African American men, preceding many of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Now co-ed, Bethune-Cookman College, served as many as 800 students, and offered Junior College level classes. In fact, the curriculum at Bethune-Cookman was comparable to that offered by the white Daytona High School, and was considered to be "the best school for Negroes in Florida" by an official on the General Board of Education. In fact, during the Great Depression, it was Bethune-Cookman that served the educational standards of the State of Florida for black students, when the state could not.
Bethune continued to serve as the president of the college from 1923 until '36, at a time when few women held similar positions elsewhere. She was extremely proud of her students, and used her school as an exhibit for donors and curious tourists, showing off what could be achieved by educating African American youth. As word of her dedication to her cause and perseverance spread, more donations were received. Eventually, what had started out as a small, rented building next to a dump grew to a 32 acre campus, with 14 buildings and 400 students, and even included a farm to be more self-sufficient.
The Mary McLeod Bethune Home now serves as a museum. Photo source: Wikipedia
In 1936, her expanding duties elsewhere began to take up more of her time and she reduced her responsibilities to only serve part-time. By 1942, she was forced to resign because the work of constant fund-raising was taking a toll on her health. But not before she managed to turn Bethune-Cookman College into an accredited four-year college.
Her house on campus is maintained as a National Historic Landmark.
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