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Mary McLeod Bethune: The First Lady of the Struggle

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Mary Jane McLeod (1875-1955) was the fifteenth of seventeen children born to former slaves, Sam and Patsy McLeod, on their farm in South Carolina where they raised cotton and rice. Her mother did the laundry for several white families. She would take Mary with her, and, in some homes, she was allowed to play with the white children. It was during one of these times that an incident occurred that would shape Mary’s future.

She was invited into a nursery of a white child who wanted her to play with her toys. Mary saw some books, took one, and opened it. The white child snatched it from her saying she didn’t know how to read. At that point, Mary determined the biggest difference between white children and black children was the ability to read, and she became inspired to learn.

She was allowed to attend the one-room schoolhouse for black children. She was the only child from her family who attended school, so she would come home each day and conduct class for her siblings. Her teacher was impressed with her, and helped her get a scholarship to attend college. After graduating college at age eighteen, she attended a school in Chicago to learn how to be a missionary. When she was told that she could not become a missionary, she decided to become a teacher.

She began teaching in her home town. She would relocate in 1896 to Georgia to work with Lucy Craft Laney who ran a school for black girls that emphasized character along with conventional subjects. Laney would be a huge inspiration to Mary for the way she ran the school as a master with the belief that the African-American race would be developed best through training the women thoroughly and practically. She worked for Laney for a year, and then moved back to South Carolina.

She would marry Albertus Bethune in 1898, and the couple moved to Florida a year later so she could run a mission school. They had a son, but her husband would leave the family in 1907 to go back to South Carolina. Though estranged, they remained married until her husband’s death in 1918.

It was in Daytona, Florida that Mary McLeod Bethune opened her first school in 1904. She rented a house, and obtained supplies through crafty scavaging and donations. Her school had six girls and her son as students. She, the parents of the students, and members of her church raised money for the school by baking sweet potato pies, making ice cream, and frying fish, which they sold mostly to crews working at the nearby dump.

Within a year, she was getting donations from local churches and businesses, and had thirty students. Bethune would credit her belief in a loving God, faith in herself, and her desire to serve for making her dream succeed to this point.

She was quite astute when it came to the business of education. She not only had sought and received donations from locally owned white businesses, she persuaded James Gamble, of Proctor and Gamble, and Thomas White, of White Sewing Machines, to become members of the school’s Board of Trustees. This was something she learned from Booker T. Washington early in her teaching career, and something that quite impressed him when he visited her school in 1912.

Her curriculum was rigorous. Her students would begin Bible Study at 5:30 a.m., and their days would end at 9 p.m., with the hours between filled both with educational studies and lessons on life designed to enhance character.

By the 1930s, she was becoming so well known that donations from the likes of John Rockefeller were coming in. In 1931, her school for black women merged with a school for black men to form Bethune-Cookman School.

Though she continued to be involved in her school, she had become a much more prominent figure nationally. She served as the national president of the National Association of Colored Women in 1924, and was invited to attend the Child Welfare Conference by President Coolidge in 1928. In 1930, President Hoover appointed her to the White House Conference on Child Health.

She would be an important person working for Franklin Roosevelt’s campaign in 1932. Not only did the President and First Lady respect her as a person, they considered her a friend and adviser. Despite that she was already one of the most sought after people to hold positions of power in African-American organizations, and certainly the most sought after of any black woman, her influence in civil rights was just beginning.

She would found the National Council of Negro Women in 1935. It unified twenty eight organizations. She would say of the council "It is our pledge to make a lasting contribution to all that is finest and best in America, to cherish and enrich her heritage of freedom and progress by working for the integration of all her people regardless of race, creed, or national origin, into her spiritual, social, cultural, civic, and economic life, and thus aid her to achieve the glorious destiny of a true and unfettered democracy."

Her work on behalf of Roosevelt’s Works Program would earn her a full-time position within the department in 1936, and the position of Director of the Division of Negro Affairs within two years. Her work there helped graduate the first African-American pilots. The Director of the agency would say of her "No one can do what Mrs. Bethune can do." Her dedication to the cause would result in more than 300,000 jobs for young black people that would give them training to qualify for jobs that previously were not open to black people.

She would serve in the Black Cabinet for President Roosevelt. At a conference held in Birmingham, Alabama, Eleanor Roosevelt requested Mary be seated next to her, which was unheard of in the segragated south. Eleanor Roosevelt considered Mary as her closest friend in her age group, which gave her access to the White House that no black person before had been given.

She would be the only African-American woman to attend the founding of the United Nations, accompanying fellow NAACP leaders W.E.B. Dubois and Walter White. She was the first woman to be given the Haitian Medal of Honor, that nation’s highest honor. She served as the United States emissary to the induction of Liberian President William V.S. Tubman.

She died of a heart attack in 1955. The Oklahoma Black Express said she was "exhibit number one for all who have faith in America and the democratic process." The New York Times would write that she was "one of the most potent factors in the growth of interracial goodwill in America." The Washington Post said "not only her own people, but all America has been enriched and ennobled by her courageous, ebullient spirit." The Daytona Beach Evening News wrote "the lesson of Mrs. Bethune’s life is that genius knows no racial barriers." The Christian Century probably said the most important thing about her: "the story of her life should be taught to every school child for generations to come."

She would be elected to the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1973. The following year on the anniversary of her 99th birthday, she became the first African-American and the first woman to have a statue erected in her honor in a public park in Washington D.C. The inscription on the base reads "Let her works praise her." On the side is a passage from her last will and testament:

"I leave you love. I leave you hope. I leave you the challenge of developing confidence in one another. I leave you a thirst for education. I leave you a respect for the use of power. I leave you faith. I leave you racial dignity. I leave you a desire to live harmoniously with your fellow men. I leave you a responsibility to our young people.”

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Quotes from Mary McLeod Bethune:

"The whole world opened to me when I learned to read."

"Faith is the first factor in a life devoted to service. Without faith, nothing is possible. With faith, nothing is impossible."

"The true worth of a race must be measured by the character of its womanhood."

"We have a powerful potential in our youth, and we must have the courage to change old ideas and practices so we may direct their power to good ends."

"Invest in the human soul. Who knows, it might be a diamond in the rough."

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