Thursday, July 24, 2014

Mary McLeod Bethune: suffrage and civil rights work

This is the second post in a three part series about Mary McLeod Bethune, each covering one of the three main periods of her life -- her childhood, education, and the foundation of her mission school, her work for suffrage and civil rights, and her legacy as a national political figure. More to come in the next few weeks.

Mary McLeod Bethune in the 1920s. Photo source:

Mary McLeod Bethune's work with her school was remarkable in itself, and had she only focused on that, she would still be heralded for her contributions to society. But she did not. She could not. Her experiences trying to improve the lives of young African American women showed her that there was much work to be done -- both for their race and for their gender.

Unfortunately, the two were not neatly addressed in the larger political realm. Prominent suffrage organizations did not welcome women of color, and many were openly racist in their attempts to court southern white women. Civil rights organizations did not typically welcome discussions around the specific issues faced by women of color, and institutionalize sexism prevented women from taking a more active role in setting the agenda. Neither of these barriers stopped her or other African American women from organizing and acting on their own for the betterment of their race and gender, though. For African American women, the two aspects were necessarily intertwined, and could not easily be teased apart. This intersectionality of race and gender informed her every action.

Mary McLeod Bethune at a Mother's Day celebration. Photo source: Mary McLeod Bethune House Facebook Page

Typical of her era, Bethune believed that women were the spiritual center of the home and community, and the best way to improve the standing of her race was to improve the standing of young African American women. This was her primary goal when she set out to create her school. She designed the curriculum to give her girls a good start in life, including religious teachings and domestic skills alongside reading, writing and math. In addition to the Three Rs, she advocated the Three Hs. "They will be trained in head, hand and heart. Their heads to think, their hands to work, and their hearts to have faith."

In 1909, she attended the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs (NACWC) annual conference, where she gave a speech about her school. Members were so moved by her passion and determination, they took up a collection for her school on the spot. Mary Church Terrell, the president of NACWC, was so impressed with her charisma and her ability to motivate others, she predicted that Bethune would eventually take on the role of president of that organization. (Spoiler: She did!)

Mary McLeod Bethune with graduating class, c.1928. Photo source: Florida Memory

Serving her community
While tending to her school, Mary was disheartened that several of her students who were ill had been turned away from the local hospital, being told it was for whites only. Her response? She opened her own hospital and nurses training school, and named it after herself. In 1911, just a few years after opening her school, the Mary McLeod Hospital and Training School opened. Not only could they provide services for sick and injured students and community members, but they would now be able to train black nurses who would be able to branch out into other communities and deliver much-needed medical services as well as find well-paying jobs as personal nurses.

Her community service didn't stop there, though. While running her school and tirelessly fund-raising, she was also active in a number of organizations and women's clubs that engaged in civil rights and social work. In 1912, as part of the Florida chapter of the National Association of Colored Women, she joined the Equal Suffrage League, a group founded by fellow educator Sarah J. Garnet to advocate for voting rights for African American women. And in 1917 she was elected to the position of president of the Florida chapter of the NACW.

Mary McLeod Bethune in front of Daytona Cookman College and Institute (Industrial School), c.1925. Photo source: Flickr

While working to secure the rights for women to vote, she was also encouraging black men to register and vote, even in the face of staunch opposition from local whites. Keep in mind that while the 15th Amendment legally gave black men the right to vote in 1870, in many Southern areas they were turned away by one scheme or another. Bethune offered night classes to all who wanted to learn how to read in order to pass the literacy tests.

Once the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, she celebrated by raising enough money for over 100 black women to be able to afford to pay the poll tax in order to vote. She was so successful in her efforts to register African Americans, men and women, that she roused the anger of the Ku Klux Klan, 80 of whom confront her and threatened to burn down her school. She did not relent, and instead stayed up all night guarding her students. The KKK never showed up. On election day, she and her 100 followers proudly marched down to the court house to cast their ballots for the mayor of Daytona.

Mary McLeod Bethune, Ida B. Wells, Nannie Helen Burroughs and others at a Baptist Women's gathering in Chicago. Photo source: Mocada Museum

She was quite busy in 1920. She was elected to serve on the National Urban League's Executive Board, where she could put her experience in community organizing and education into service toward the larger goals of the Urban League movement to remove barriers to black education and employment opportunities. She also founded and served as the president of Southeastern Federation of Colored Women (SFCW), where she used her leadership position to open an alternative school for delinquent girls. The state-run school was for whites only, and knowing the severe need for similar services for African American young women, she funded the school through the SFCW and her own accounts until she finally convinced the state to appropriate funds several years later.

As the story of her determination and bravery spread, she was sought out to speak publicly on the behalf of civil rights. So now, in addition to her work at the school, her fund-raising, and her club efforts, she was also traveling the nation to rally support, inspire more activists, and serve on a more national scale. It was at a meeting with the scholar W.E.B. DuBois where he remarked that, as a black man, he could not even check out one of his own books at the local library that she got the idea to open her school's library to the general public. In so doing, she created the first source of free access to books for blacks in Florida at the time.

Mary McLeod Bethune with Ethyl Ellison, Eulalia White, Doris Wesley, and others. Photo source: Thelma Patten

Going National
In 1923, she became the first female president of the National Association of Teachers in Colored Schools. And then, in 1924, true to the prediction of Mary Church Terrell, she accepted the position of national president of the NACWC, the most prestigious position available for a black woman at the time. Under her leadership, the 200,000-member NACWC lobbied for a federal anti-lynching bill, prison reform, and other pressing social issues faced by women and society in general. In keeping with Bethune's belief that financial security for women was key to success, the NACWC offered job training for women.

One of her leadership goals while president of the NACWC was to create a national headquarters located in Washington, D.C., complete with a professional executive secretary and all the cache and recognition that would come with that achievement. And she did it. The organization purchased property at 1318 Vermont Avenue (now the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House), becoming the first black-controlled organization to have a permanent base in the nation's capital.

Mary McLeod Bethune Council House, Washington, D.C. Photo source: Capital Reach

It was because of her growing national influence that she was invited to a luncheon co-hosted by the mother of the governor of New York, Franklin D. Roosevelt, in 1927. She entered the party to witness horrified stares from several prominent Southern ladies. As the only African American attending, she was likely a shock to their delicate sensibilities. But the senior Mrs. Roosevelt simply led her into the dining room and seated her in the place of honor and cordially introduced her to her daughter-in-law, Eleanor. The two became fast friends.

Mary McLeod Bethune and Eleanor Roosevelt visiting Lucy D. Slowe Hall, women's dormitory for Negro war workers, c. 1943. Photo source: Yale Photogrammar

And it was then that her national influence really began to blossom.

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