WBW Honors: Mary McLeod Bethune

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Mary McLeod Bethune, the daughter of slaves, became an early 20th Century educator and civil rights leader, founding both Bethune-Cookman College and the National Council of Negro Women. But Bethune became even more influential as a friend and confidant of Eleanor Roosevelt, and as an advisor to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on Negro affairs. Bethune became a member of Roosevelt’s unofficial”Black Cabinet,” the first time Black Americans had that kind of access to the White House. As such, Bethune helped open the very doors that Barack Obama walked through as the first Black president of the United States.

Bethune was born in Mayesville, South Carolina, on July 3, 1875. She was the fifteenth of seventeen children born to former slaves on a plot of land called “Homestead.”

In 1904, Bethune founded a school for Black girls in Daytona, Florida in a time when segregation threatened to destroy the educational aspirations of countless African-Americans. With little money but plenty of time and attention, she lifted the Daytona school to impeccable standards to rival that of the local white public high school. By 1910, the school’s enrollment had increased from its original six students (one being her son, Albert) to 102 students at a four-year high school. Despite Ku Klux Klan efforts to repeatedly thwart her, she made every attempt to raise funds to keep the school growing. By allying with Booker T. Washington shortly after his visit to the Daytona school, Bethune was able to link her institution to wealthy philanthropists from the North. Of these elites, the Roosevelts and Rockefellers may have been the largest donors.

Bethune’s civic participation was not limited to education. She later founded the National Council of Negro Women, and served on the board for the National Association for Colored Women a vocal advocate for women’s rights. In 1936, Mary McLeod Bethune became the first woman to receive a major appointment from the federal government when she was named Director of the Negro Affairs of the National Youth
Administration.

By the time of her death in 1955, she had used her post at the NYA to travel the country surveying the greater social problems, making recommendations to resolve them, and raising money. Bethune was honored with the unveiling of a National Monument on the grounds of the Capitol in Washington, DC, in 1974. Mary McLeod Bethune was commemorated on a U.S. postage stamp in 1985.

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