“The First Lady of the Struggle”: The Remarkable Mary McLeod Bethune 

By Holley Snaith

“A woman is free if she lives by her own standards and creates her own destiny, if she prizes her individuality and puts no boundaries on her hopes for tomorrow.”

Mary McLeod Bethune 

In the early 1880s, a young African American girl would often accompany her mother, a former enslaved person, to deliver the laundry to white families around the small town of Mayesville, South Carolina. On one occasion, the little girl made her way into the white children’s nursey and picked up a book. Soon, the book was snatched out of her hand by a white girl, and she was reprimanded with the comment, “Put that down. You can’t read!” That simple, yet biting, remark would define the life and work of Mary McLeod Bethune.

Mary was the epitome of a woman who created her own destiny, for opportunity was never handed to her on a silver platter. The remarkable woman who would go on to be one of the most respected educators in the world, a champion for civil and women’s rights, the founder of an esteemed college, and a special advisor to five U.S. presidents was born in 1875 on a farm in South Carolina to former slaves. 

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Mary McLeod Bethune, ca. 1915. Photo: State Archives of Florida

Young Mary had a thirst for education and wanted to learn as much as she possibly could, but she had to wait for that opportunity. As the fifteenth child, she daily trudged through the bountiful cotton fields with her siblings and parents, working from sunup to sundown picking cotton, sometimes up to 250 pounds a day. Finally, when she was ten-years-old, Mary was able to enroll in the little one-room Trinity Presbyterian School, walking a total of eight miles a day to chase her dream of acquiring an education. She would forever remember the significance of learning how to read and coming to the realization that a whole world of endless opportunities was in her reach. Of course, as an African American woman, her journey would never be easy. 

With her first dream being becoming a missionary, Mary studied first at North Carolina’s Scotia Seminary, and then went on to Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. Although she was disappointed when no openings for missionary work became available, Mary soon entered another occupation that she was equally passionate about: education. It was while teaching at the Kendall Institute in South Carolina that she met and married Albertus Bethune in 1898. The next year, she gave birth to their only child, Albert. 

The young family then relocated to Florida, where the Bethunes ran a mission school, but Mary had a bigger dream: to open her own school for girls. After settling in the burgeoning city of Daytona, Mary began renting a small house for $11 a month, furnished it with hand-made benches and desks, and fulfilled her dream by opening the Daytona Normal & Industrial Institute for Negro Girls in the fall of 1904. This tiny school that began with six students (five girls and Mary’s son Albert) would eventually become Bethune-Cookman University. 

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Mary McLeod Bethune with students of the Daytona Normal & Industrial Institute for Negro Girls around 1905. Source: World Digital Library 

While building a new school from the ground up and as a now single mother raising her son, Mary also began investing more of her time in speaking out on issues related to civil rights, women’s rights, and education. Having a front row seat to the plight of African American children, when Mary was serving as the president of the State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, she passionately fought against segregation in schools and spoke up on other issues that concerned Black children. Establishing the National Council of Negro Women earned Mary national recognition, leading President Calvin Coolidge to appoint her to the Child Welfare Conference. His successor Herbert Hoover followed suit and assigned her to the National Commission on Child Welfare. 

It was President Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) who most utilized Mary’s effectiveness, due in large part to the close friendship she formed with his wife, also an unapologetic civil rights champion, Eleanor Roosevelt. Mary made history in 1936 when FDR appointed her the director of Negro Affairs for the National Youth Administration (NYA), making her the highest ranking female African American in the country. 

Recognizing Mary’s brilliance and valuing her insight, the president asked her to lead the unofficial “Black Cabinet,” a group of Black leaders that Mary herself recommended to keep the president abreast on racial issues. In this position, she coordinated a conference that spotlighted the “Problems of the Negro and the Negro Youth,” designed to raise awareness on, and put an end to, discrimination and lynching. Incredibly bold in her public stances, it was not uncommon to see Mary picketing outside of businesses in Washington that were known to discriminate against African Americans. 

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Mary McLeod Bethune with Eleanor Roosevelt and Aubrey Williams, the executive director of the National Youth Administration, in 1937. Source: Biography 

Once the United States entered World War II, Mary’s focus shifted to racial and gender equality in the armed services. As a special assistant to the Secretary of War and as the assistant director of the Women’s Army Corp, she lobbied for African American women who desired to join the military and organized some of the first women’s officer candidate schools. Making history yet again, Mary was the only woman of color to be invited to attend the founding conference of the United Nations in San Francisco. 

Even after the Allied victory and the death of FDR, Mary continued to devote herself to public service. President Harry Truman asked her to represent the United States and travel to Liberia to receive the coveted “Commander of the Order of the Star of Africa.” As she entered her late 70s, Mary refused to shy away from speaking up on racial issues that continually irked the likes of the Ku Klux Klan and the famed Republican senator, Joseph McCarthy, who insisted she had communist ties.  

Mary McLeod Bethune died at her home in Daytona on May 18, 1955. This home, next to the university she envisioned and founded, became a National Historic Landmark in 1974 and is open to visitors. 

Upon hearing of her close friend’s passing, Eleanor Roosevelt honored her in her My Day column, writing, “Beginning with a dollar and a half she built a Negro college in Florida. She fought for the rights of her people but never with resentment or bitterness, and she taught both her own people and her white fellow Americans many a valuable lesson.” 

The lessons that Mary McLeod Bethune left behind were the result of her strong faith, her belief in the value of education, her passion for justice, her experience with discrimination, and her unequivocable desire for equality for every race, religion, and gender. Although her battle was arduous and often dangerous, Mary McLeod Bethune overcame her struggle so others could too. The baton was passed, and her work continues.   

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The memorial dedicated to Mary McLeod Bethune located in Lincoln Park in Washington, D.C. Dedicated on what would have been Mary’s 99th birthday in 1974, it was the first memorial dedicated to an African American woman to be dedicated in a public park in the nation’s capital. The memorial reads, “Let her works praise her.” Photo: National Park Service 

Recommended Reading

“Mary McLeod Bethune: National Women’s History Museum”: https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/mary-mcleod-bethune 

“Eleanor and Mary McLeod Bethune: American Experience”: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/eleanor-bethune/ 

“The Extraordinary Life of Mary McLeod Bethune: The National World War II Museum”: https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/mary-mcleod-bethune 

The Mary McLeod Bethune Home in Florida: National Park Service: https://www.nps.gov/places/mary-mcleod-bethune-home.htm 

The Mary McLeod Bethune Council House in Washington, D.C.: https://www.nps.gov/mamc/index.htm 

Mary McLeod Bethune’s Inspirational Last Will & Testament: Bethune-Cookman University”: https://www.cookman.edu/about_bcu/history/lastwill_testament.html 

About the Author

Holley Snaith is a writer and historian who specializes in 20th century U.S. history. Her passion for history began in high school when she completed her senior project on Franklin Roosevelt and the creation of the March of Dimes and interned at Roosevelt’s Little White House in Georgia. After graduating with a B.A. in History from the University of Florida, Holley moved to New York and began an internship with the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum. Next, she embarked upon a historical restoration project in partnership with the National Park Service at Eleanor Roosevelt’s home, Val-Kill, and served as program assistant to the Girls’ Leadership Worldwide Program at the Eleanor Roosevelt Center. 

Holley has also worked for the Richard Nixon Foundation in California. There, she conducted research and created an exhibit on Pat Nixon at the University of Southern California, as well as managed donor relations. As a freelance writer and historian, Holley continues to write articles on inspirational historical figures and has been published in American Heritage Magazine. She holds an M.S.A. in Public Administration from the University of West Florida. 

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