Mary McLeod Bethune

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Civil Rights
Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955), born to former slaves a decade after the Civil War, devoted her life to ensure the right to education and freedom from discrimination for African Americans. She was an educator, an organizer, and a political activist, and opened one of the first schools for African American girls.

Biographical Highlights

Mary McLeod Bethune, born to former slaves a decade after the Civil War, devoted her life to ensure the right to education and freedom from discrimination for African Americans. Bethune believed that with education, African Americans would begin to earn a living in a country that still opposed racial equality. Bethune worked tirelessly until her death and would not rest while there was “a single Negro boy or girl without a chance to prove her worth” (National Association of Home Care).  As a result of her hard work and contributions to society, there was a United States Postal Stamp issued in 1985, thirty years after her death, in remembrance of Mary McLeod Bethune.

Historic Roots

Mary McLeod Bethune was born July 10, 1875 in Maysville, South Carolina by Samuel and Patsy McLeod. She was one of the seventeen children that worked in the cotton fields with her family. Throughout her childhood, she received her education at Maysville Presbyterian Mission School, Scotia Seminary, and Moody Bible Institute (Women in History). She married Albertus Bethune and had one son. She began to teach in Georgia, then later in South Carolina, Florida, and Illinois. During the time she taught in Illinois, she visited prisoners in jail, giving them inspiration through songs (National Association of Home Care). On May 18, 1955, Mary McLeod Bethune died leaving a legacy of interracial cooperation and increased educational opportunity for African Americans (ibid.).  She said, “From the first, I made my learning, what little it was, useful every way I could,” as an inspiration that nothing is impossible (Women in History).


Mary McLeod Bethune was an educator, an organizer, and a political activist. In addition, she also made many contributions to the African American society (ibid.). On October 3, 1904, Bethune opened one of the first schools for African American girls, Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School, in Daytona Beach, Florida, which is now called Bethune-Cookman College. Upon the opening of the school, there were five girls who attended as students. Because Bethune had very little money, she used boxes and packaged crates for desks and charged $.50 a week for tuition.  Although the students had to pay tuition,  she never turned away any child whose parents were unable to pay. Later, boys were able to attend as well (National Association of Home Care). In addition to working hard to maintain the school, Bethune also fought aggressively the segregation and inequality facing African Americans, even opening a high school and a hospital for African Americans. Bethune had an enormous faith in God (ibid.). 

In addition to Bethune’s school success, she also became increasingly involved in political issues (Women in History).  Bethune was the first African American woman to be involved in the White House, assisting four different presidents from 1904 to 1942 and 1946 to1947 (ibid.). Because of the discussions she had with Vice President Thomas Marshall, the Red Cross decided to integrate and African Americans were allowed to perform the same duties as whites (National Association of Home Care).  In 1917, Bethune became president of the Florida Federation of Colored Women. In 1924, she was the president of the National Association of Colored Women and also reached the highest level in national office to which, at that time, a Black woman could aspire. She also formed the National Council of Negro Women to take on national issues affecting African Americans. In 1936, she was the director of the National Youth Administration’s Division of Negro Affairs and in 1940 she was the vice-president of the NAACP. In 1951, she then served on President Truman’s Committee of Twelve for National Defense (ibid.).
In addition to all the commitments that she had over the years, Bethune continued to work with many different organizations such as the National Urban League, the Association of American Colleges, and the League of Women Voters. She also worked under presidents Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, and Theodore Roosevelt on child welfare, housing, employment, and education. In June of 1936, she was assigned director of the Division of Negro Affairs and became the first African American woman to serve as head of the federal agency (ibid.).

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Mary McLeod Bethune believed one of the best ways to help the African American community was through education, and with the inspiration of Lucy Laney, Bethune worked tirelessly to uphold the institution she founded. One of her main goals was to teach the African American females ways to strengthen African American families to better their homes for the future (McCluskey 1997).
Being a founder and the president of the institution, she regularly invited the city’s white leaders to the campus for religious and cultural events. Bethune’s friendship with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt enabled her to secure funds for the public works projects, which endeared Bethune and her college to the city’s white population (Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 1999).

Bethune invited many wealthy Daytona Beach residents to visit her school, where she showcased her students’ discipline, work habits, and desire to learn. When the school began to struggle monetary, she asked for contributions from such these benefactors, as well as the School’s board of trustees. In addition, she was also able to go to the individuals who were a part of the support groups that she organized including white club women and the wives of prominent men. However, she continued to rely on the African American community because they were her first and main source of support since she began in 1904 (McCluskey1997).

As a result of Bethune’s efforts, 9,500 students have graduated from Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School, known as Bethune-Cookman College since 1943, and who have gone back into their communities to make a difference (National Association of Home Care).

Key Related Ideas

African Americans:  Also known as Black Americans, are an ethnic group in the United States of America whose ancestors originated from Sub-Saharan and West Africa. The majority of African Americans are of African, and Native American ancestry. Many African Americans also have European ancestors (

African American Population: According to the 2003 U.S. Census, 37.1 million African Americans live in the United States, totaling 12.9 of the total population. The 2000 Census showed that 54.8 percent of African Americans lived in the South; 17.6 percent lived in the Northeast, 18.7 percent in the Midwest, and 8.9 percent lived in the western states. Nearly 88 percent of African Americans lived in metropolitan areas in 2000.  New York City had the largest African American urban population in the United States in 2000 with over 2 million African American residents.  In 2000, in cities with over 100,000 residents, Gary, Indiana, 85 percent of residents were African American, while Detroit, Michigan had 83 percent (ibid.).

African-American Slavery: Africans were sold and traded into slavery and transported to the American South from 1607 until the 19th century. In 1807, slave importation was outlawed but this was widely ignored. By 1860, there were 3.5 million slaves in the South, and 500,000 African Americans living free across the United States.  Slavery was a heated topic in American society and politics. The growth of abolitionism, which opposed slavery, culminated in the 1860 with the election of President Abraham Lincoln, the secession of the Confederate States of America, and the Civil War (ibid.).

In 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation declared all slaves in the Confederacy to be free.  Ratified in 1865, the 13th Amendment declared all slaves in states that had not seceded to be free. During Reconstruction, African Americans in the South were given the right to vote and hold public office, along with a number of other civil rights that had previously been denied (ibid.).

African American Civil Rights:  In 1877 reconstruction ended, but southern, white landowners continued to treat African Americans unequally, segregating them and leading lynchings and other violence acts.  These conditions sparked a movement to fight violence and discrimination against African Americans.  The modern day Civil Rights Movement began, which peaked in the 1960s under leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Roy Wilkins. Other leaders, such as Malcolm X, encouraged African Americans to embrace Black nationalism and Black self-empowerment, leading to Black unity and solidarity (ibid.).

Important People Related to the Topic

  • Charlotte Hawkins Brown (1883-1961):  Brown pursued a vision to turn “a little church school with two teachers” into a school for the sons and daughters of the African American upper middle class. The school’s name became Palmer Memorial Institute which opened in rural Sedalia, North Carolina in 1901 under the auspices of the American Missionary Association (AMA).  Her goals were in agreement with the dictates of race uplift and vocational-ism, in which her intentions were to train African American youth “in the skills of the  artisan,” and help them engage in and expand citizenship within their   communities (McCluskey 1997).
  • Nannie Helen Burroughs (1883-1961): Burroughs sought to provide a nonsectarian education that gave all girls a chance to overcome any disadvantages.  In 1909, her school opened in Washington, D.C. after eight years of planning and with the support of the Women’s Auxiliary of the National Baptist Convention, an organization in which she served as national secretary. The National Training School for Women and Girls was the first all female school operated by a Black woman, outside the Deep South. In the midst of her teachings, she always told her students “No one will give you a chance; you have to take a chance” (McCluskey 1997, 8).
  • Lucy Craft Laney (1854-1933):  Laney began her life as a slave in which her father was a minister and a carpenter, and managed to buy their family’s freedom to reunite them. In 1873, Laney opened her school in Augusta, Georgia and named it Haines Normal and Industrial Institute. Although her original plan was to teach only girls, she then opened her doors to boys who were begging for an education. Laney believed that educated African American women, particularly those trained in service oriented Christian Mission Schools, were best suited to lead the race in counteracting with the effects of society’s image of “shame and crime” (McCluskey 1997, 5). These African American women were leaders, chosen as key individuals because they all shared a historical framework relating to their race and sex. Over the years, they showed their support of each other because of their similar views on many issues (McCluskey 1997).

Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is a national organization that focuses on the protection and enhancement of civil rights for African Americans and other minorities. The organization has roots that are tied to individuals who tried to make a difference within the African American community, specifically Mary McLeod Bethune.  The NAACP has a number of local chapters within each state of the United States. (
  • National Association of Colored Women (NACW) is an organization having great fellowship with women united in service to uplift the standards of homes and extend their services to better communities. The activities and contributions of the club are for women to help improve the quality of life for all people, especially those in the African American community (
  • National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) is an organization that was established by Mary McLeod Bethune. This organization focuses on the opportunities and equality of life for African American women, their families and communities. The organization has an outreach of nearly four million women, all contributing to the peaceful solutions to the problems of human welfare and rights (
  • National Urban League (NUL) is the nation’s oldest and largest community-based movement empowering African Americans to enter the economic and social mainstream. This organization served more than 2 million African Americans and other minorities in need. The Urban League Affiliates operate programs in education, job training and placement, housing, business development, crime and prevention, and many other important program categories (

Related Web Sites

The Midwestern State University’s Web site, at, offers a section on Famous Black Educators with biographies on Mary McLeod Bethune, Charlotte Forten, Marva Collins, Mary Jane Patterson, Lisa Delpit, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, and E. V. Wilkins.

The Historically Black College and University Mega Site Web site, at, strives to be a link between all Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) worldwide.  The site provides free information and services for the HBCU community including enrolled and prospective students, parents, faculty and alumni.  Features include news, chat, hotlinks, scholarship information, and much more.

The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education Website, at, Provides news, featured articles, job listings, information on Affirmative Action, and statistics regarding African Americans and education.

Bibliography and Internet Sources

  • Profiles in Caring.  Mary McLeod Bethune.  
  • Journal of Blacks in Higher Education.  Daytona Beach in the 1940’s: Apartheid USA Style. Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 24:  79. New York: July 31, 1999. In Proquest (database online).  Available from University Microfilms (UMI).
  • McCluskey, Audrey Thomas.  “We specialize in the wholly impossible: Black women school founders and their mission.” Signs Vol. 22:  403.  Winter (1997). In Proquest (database online).  Available from University Microfilms (UMI).
  • National Association of Home Care (NAHC). Profiles in Caring: Mary McLeod Bethune.
  • Women in History. Mary McLeod Bethune.  Lakewood Public Library.


This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at Grand Valley State University. It is offered by Learning To Give and Grand Valley State University.