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Published Date: March 16, 2023

Featured Articles

Featured Articles

Educator and Visionary: A Profile of Mary McLeod Bethune

Invest in the human soul . . . Who knows, it might be a diamond in the rough.[1]

—Mary McLeod Bethune

In July 2022, Mary McLeod Bethune became the first African American woman to be honored with a statue at the US Capitol’s National Statuary Hall Collection.[2] An educator and activist, Bethune appeared on a postage stamp in 1985. Her home is now a National Historic Site.[3] Most importantly, her courage and commitment have inspired generations of Americans. Given her work in education, leadership, and public policy, she is one of the nation’s most influential leaders for the rights of women and African Americans.

Early Life and Education

In 1875, Bethune was born in South Carolina to former slaves. She attended a Presbyterian mission school where she was awarded a scholarship to Scotia Seminary in North Carolina,[4] and after graduating in 1894 she went on to study at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois. When she applied to Moody, she had an interest in serving as a missionary in Africa. This desire arose when she heard a Methodist minister and professor lecture on missions in Africa as a child. Recalling this occasion, she wrote, “As I heard him tell about African people and the need for missionaries, there grew in my soul the determination to go someday.”[5]

As a student at Moody, Bethune ministered in Sunday schools, jails, and the Pacific Garden Mission which distributed food, clothing and other necessities to people in need.[6] Following two years at Moody, she sought a missionary appointment from the Presbyterian Board of Missions, but they rejected her request to go to Africa, claiming no positions were available. Though she was disappointed at the setback, she said, “Africans in America needed Christ and school just as much as Negroes in Africa. . . My life work lay not in Africa but in my own country.”[7] Instead, the board sent her to a Presbyterian-sponsored girls’ school in South Carolina, and it was there that she met her husband and fellow teacher Albert Bethune.[8]

While teaching in Florida, Mary Bethune became aware of the lack of education available to African Americans in Daytona Beach. This need spurred her to found the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Girls in 1903—one of her most important and well-known accomplishments.[9] Bethune worked as a teacher, administrator, advocate, and fund-raiser. Her boarding school for girls “set educational standards for today’s black colleges.”[10] The school eventually merged with the Cookman Institute, forming Bethune-Cookman College in 1929.

More than once the Ku Klux Klan marched on the institution, but Bethune stood firm. In 1922, more than one hundred robed men stormed the campus to protest Bethune’s efforts to mobilize Black women to vote. She ordered the faculty to have the students shelter in their dorms while Bethune and the staff spread out across the school. They bravely stood and watched as the Ku Klux Klan walked onto the campus—and left within a few minutes.[11] The school continued to prosper and began granting accredited degrees in 1943.

In 1911, she founded McLeod Hospital, the region’s first not to turn away Black citizens. This hospital saved numerous lives, not least during the devastating flu epidemic of 1918.[12] In the words of Bethune’s friend and biographer, she “spared neither pains nor money” in treating those in need, especially those who could not receive care elsewhere.[13] When they ran low on space, they set up cots in an auditorium.

Leadership and Legacy

After women gained the right to vote in 1920, Bethune mobilized women, especially women of color, to take full advantage of it. Her work in the area of voting rights propelled her to leadership in several major organizations and even in the government. She became president of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs in 1924 and of the National Council of Negro Women in 1935. From 1940 until her death, she was vice president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons.[14]

Bethune befriended Eleanor Roosevelt and advised Franklin Roosevelt, becoming the highest-ranking Black woman in the administration.[15] She was part of the board that formed the Women’s Army Corps during World War II. While the Army remained racially segregated, women like Bethune ensured the Women’s Corps was racially integrated from the start.[16] Following the war, Bethune was a delegate at the first United Nations assembly and helped draft its charter.[17] Her tireless and far-reaching influence in so many areas, from education to health care to government, remains a lodestar for the rights of women and people of color.[18]

Though her wish to be a missionary in Africa did not come to pass, God clearly used her in ways she could not have imagined. As Bethune wrote concerning a chapel service at Moody, “I was so happy. I was there and could kneel in that great presence with open heart and mind awaiting the realization within my own life and the baptism of the Holy Spirit of the service.”[19] Without a doubt, God has used her mightily to bless many women and inspire generations to come.

Photo by Carl Van Vechten on Wikimedia Commons

[1] Quoted in “Bethune, Mary McLeod (1875–1955) Education and Equality: The Work of Mary McLeod Bethune,” Boston University School of Theology, accessed March 8, 2023, https://www.bu.edu/missiology/2020/03/02/bethune-mary-mcleod-1875-1955/.

[2] “Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune,” Architect of the Capitol, accessed March 7, 2023, https://www.aoc.gov/explore-capitol-campus/art/mary-mcleod-bethune-statue. 

[3] Debra Michals, ed., “Mary McLeod Bethune,” Women’s History Museum, accessed February 22, 2023, https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/mary-mcleod-bethune.  

[4] Michals ed., “Mary McLeod Bethune.”

[5] Yahya Jongintaba, “Mary McLeod Bethune at Moody: ‘A Profound Influence,’” Moody Bible Institute Alumni Stories, February 26, 2020, https://www.moody.edu/alumni/connect/news/2020/bethune/.   

[6] Jongintaba, “Mary McLeod Bethune at Moody.”

[7] Quoted in Jerry Marx, “Mary McLeod Bethune (1875–1955)—Educator, Public Administrator, Civil Rights Activist,” Social Welfare History Project, accessed March 7, 2023, https://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/eras/bethune-mary-mcleod/.

[8]  Jongintaba, “Mary McLeod Bethune at Moody.”   

[9] Michals, ed., “Mary McLeod Bethune.”

[10] Michals, ed., “Mary McLeod Bethune.”

[11] Martha S. Jones, “Mary McLeod Bethune Was at the Vanguard of More than 50 Years of Black Progress,” Smithsonian, July 2020, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/mary-mcleod-bethune-vanguard-more-than-50-years-black-progress-180975202/.  

[12] Jones, “Mary McLeod Bethune.”

[13] Quoted in Jones, “Mary McLeod Bethune.”

[14] Michals, ed., “Mary McLeod Bethune.”

[15] Jones, “Mary McLeod Bethune.”

[16] Michals, ed., “Mary McLeod Bethune.”

[17] Jones, “Mary McLeod Bethune.”

[18] Jones, “Mary McLeod Bethune.”

[19] Jongintaba, “Mary McLeod Bethune at Moody.”

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