Mary McLeod Bethune, 1875-1955

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Woman Category: Academy & Education, Activism & Feminism, and PhilanthropyWoman Tags: Abolitionist, African-American Women, Educator, The Pioneering Women of the Penn Quarter Neighborhood, and WDC Metro Area Women

  • HerStory

    “The first lady of The struggle,” an educator and activist for equal rights for African-American and women, and founder of schools and organizations.

    Born as the 15th of 17 children to former slaves in South Carolina, in 1875. It is told that one day while being in the children’s room of the white family, she took up a book, and the white child took it away from her, telling her she can’t read. From that moment, she was determined to learn how to read and become educated, a dream she achieved when becoming the first of her family to go to school. Every day she came back home and taught her family what she had learned, thus began her teaching career.
    Bethune hoped to become a missionary in Africa but became an educator only after finding there was no sponsorship for her missionary goal. Instead, she taught young African-American girls, believing that equality in education is the foundation of equality in all other fields. This goal has been the anchor and the passion to which she devoted her life.
    In 1904, Bethune founded the boarding school for girls in Daytona Beach, Florida. The class grew from six girls to more than 30 within a year, and parallel to teaching, Bethune succeeded in raising funds to expand the school. In 1931, her school was merged with the boys’ Cookman Institute, and in 1941 achieved a full college statue, as the Bethune-Cookman College.
    Her nickname “The first lady of the struggle,” was given to her for becoming a highly admired public leader for civil rights. She was the founder of many organizations, the president of the National Association of Colored Woman, the president of the Southeastern Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, and the founder of the National Council of Negro Women.
    Bethune was appointed to the position of Director of the Division of Negro Affairs, and as such, became the first African-American female division head. Her most important role in the public sphere was to be in the Black Cabinet under president Roosevelt administration, which was the first collective of black people working in higher positions in government. Bethune stayed in government roles for many years, served as the US emissary to the induction of President William V.S. Tubman of Liberia in 1949, and as an adviser to five of the Presidents of the United States.

    “The true worth of a race must be measured by the character of its womanhood”

    “The true worth of a race must be measured by the character of its womanhood”

    More Interesting Anecdotes:

    • In 1898 she married Albertus Bethune and they had one son.
    • Many schools were named after her throughout the US.
    • On March 2018, the Florida House approved to place a statue of Mary McLeod Bethune in the US Capitol’s Statuary Hall, replacing Edmund Kirby Smith, a Confederate general. Bethune will be the first African-American to be honored in the US Capitol’s National Statuary Hall and will be the 10th woman statue in the collection.


  • More About Her Legacy
    Creations By and About Her:

    * Books about her


    * In 1949 she became the first woman to receive the National Order of Honour and Merit, Haiti's highest award.
    * In 1973, Bethune was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.

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  • One of Her Landmarks

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  • Mary McLeod Bethune, Civil Rights Activist | Biography

    Jacqui Rossi explores the life of Mary McLeod Bethune and her devotion to the education and advancement of African Americans. #Biography

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    Season 1

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  • A photograph of Bethune in her 20's-30's, taken at Daytona Beach, FL. Presented at the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. Photo credit - WWP team.