Mary Jane McLeod Bethune was a renowned educator and African American leader of the 20th century. She was born on July 10, 1875 in South Carolina to parents who had been former slaves. She was one of 17 children in her family, and all of them, including Mary, worked at the cotton plantations along with their parents. Mary would often accompany her mother when she worked at white people’s houses nearby. Here she first became exposed to their toys and books and expressed a fascination with them. She decided that she wanted to learn how to read and write and began to attend a one room black school nearby called Trinity Mission School. She was the only one in her family to pursue an education and had to walk five miles to get to school.
She initially planned to become a missionary in Africa but was told that they did not need any black missionaries, so she decided to go into teaching instead. In 1898, she married a teacher who worked with her named Albertus Bethune. The couple moved to Savannah, Georgia and had a son named Albert, where Mary started doing social work and then moved to Florida to run a mission school. She and Albertus separated, and she then went on to found the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls in Daytona, Florida. When she started out, the school just had 5 students but it went on to enroll more than 250 students over time. This school was later merged with the Cookman Institute for Men and became known as the Bethune-Cookman College. At the time, this was one of the few places that offered a place for African Americans to pursue a college education.
Over the course of her career, Mary McLeod Bethune became involved in government service. She was invited by President Calvin Coolidge to participate in a conference on child welfare and by President Herbert Hoover to serve on the Commission on Home Building and Home Ownership, as well as the committee on child health. In 1935, she was appointed as a special advisor to President Roosevelt for minority affairs. She also started up her own organization by the name of National Council of Negro Women. This organization represented groups that worked on issues affecting African American women such as education, economic opportunities and racial segregation. In 1936, she was appointed the Director of the Division of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration, which was responsible to help young people search for job opportunities. She was close to President Roosevelt and the First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt as they worked closely on several projects.
Mary McLeod Bethune was respected as an educator, social activist and champion for African American women. She devoted her life to social causes and took up residence at the headquarters of the National Council of Negro Women in Washington, D.C. She was also a member of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) and represented it at the founding conference of the United Nations in 1945. She also worked in collaboration with President Harry Truman who appointed her to a committee on national defense. Bethune retired in the 1950s and moved to Florida towards the end of her life. She died on May 18, 1955 at the age of 79. Her will, titled “My Last Will and Testament” is a commentary on her life and accomplishments. In 1973, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.