Educator, social activist, government official. The daughter and sister of former slaves, Bethune was born the fifteenth of seventeen siblings, near Mayesville on July 10, 1875. After emancipation, her father and mother, Samuel McLeod and Patsy McIntosh, worked on plantations for wages until they managed to buy land for cotton farming and build a small cabin for their family.
Bethune gained an educational opportunity rare for black children of the time when the Trinity Presbyterian Mission School opened in 1885 about five miles from her home. She attended for three years when she was not needed in the fields, absorbing learning in both industrial and academic subjects. She also learned domestic arts from her mother, whom Bethune later credited with holding the family together and with engineering their successful transition from slavery to self-sustenance.
With a scholarship from a teacher in Colorado, Bethune continued her education at Scotia Seminary for Negro Girls (later Barber-Scotia College) in Concord, North Carolina. As a student there, she particularly honed her public-speaking and singing skills. On graduation in 1894 she entered the Bible Institute for Home and Foreign Missions (later Moody Bible Institute) in Chicago with hopes of preparing for an overseas mission assignment. When she graduated a year later, however, she discovered that the Mission Board did not make overseas appointments to African Americans. Instead, she began the career as an American educator that would bring her national acclaim and provide her a platform for activism in racial equality.
As a teacher at the Haines Institute in Augusta, Georgia, Bethune found a role model and mentor in Lucy Craft Laney, the first African American female to found and manage a major secondary school. Bethune left Haines after one year to teach at Presbyterian-sponsored Kendall Institute in Sumter, where she met Albertus Bethune, a native of nearby Wedgefield, whom she married in May 1898. The couple moved to Savannah, Georgia, where Albertus had found work and where their only child, Albert, was born. By 1899 they moved to Palatka, Florida, where Bethune was urged by the Presbyterian Church to establish a mission school. In 1904, in the resort community of Daytona, she opened the Daytona Normal and Industrial School for Negro Girls.
An expert fundraiser and eloquent speaker among the wealthy northerners who visited Daytona Beach, Bethune developed her small school into a major institution. By 1910 more than one hundred students attended the all-grades school to study academic, industrial, and religious subjects. In 1911 Bethune founded the McLeod Hospital to provide the first local medical opportunity for African Americans and to train African American health-care professionals. Her school also ran a large farm and various social service outreach missions. The Methodist Episcopal Church affiliated with the growing school in 1923 and merged it with the Cookman Institute, a coeducational Methodist school in Jacksonville. Bethune soon added a junior college; and in 1929 the institution became Bethune-Cookman College, with Bethune serving as its president until 1942.
Bethune’s widespread influence on behalf of African Americans began with her presidency of the Florida Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs (1917–1924). She later served as president of the Southeastern Association of Colored Women, president of the Florida State Teachers Association, president of the National Association of Colored Women, founder and president of the National Council of Negro Women, member of President Herbert Hoover’s Commission on Home Building and Home Ownership, vice president of the National Urban League, and vice president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. With these local and national platforms, her influence ranged from establishing community welfare projects for African Americans to convincing U.S. Army officials to include black women at all levels in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC).
Bethune gained her greatest national renown when President Franklin Roosevelt tapped her as an adviser on New Deal programs and spokesperson to and for African Americans concerning his administration’s reform policies. In 1936 he appointed her director of the Office of Negro Affairs in the National Youth Administration, a post she held for eight years and from which she was able to assure that thousands of black youths received a fair share of government- supported college funding, job training, and employment opportunities.
As an educator and civil rights activist, Bethune was recognized with numerous national awards and honorary academic degrees. Among the first of these was an honorary master of science degree from South Carolina State University. She also received an honorary LL.D. from Howard University and honorary doctorate degrees in humanities from Bennett College, West Virginia State College, and Rollins College. Bethune spent most of the last five years of her life in retirement at her home on the Bethune-Cookman College campus. She died of a heart attack on May 18, 1955, and was buried at Bethune-Cookman.
Fleming, Sheila Y. Bethune-Cookman College, 1904–1994: The Answered Prayer to a Dream. Virginia Beach, Va.: Donning, 1995.
Holt, Rackham. Mary McLeod Bethune: A Biography. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1964.
McCluskey, Audrey, and Elaine M. Smith, eds. Mary McLeod Bethune: Building a Better World; Essays and Selected Documents. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.