Educator for African Americans

Mary (McLeod) Bethune was born to parents who had been slaves. She became a field worker at the age of 5 but wanted to become educated. She was the 15th of 17 children raised in a small log cabin. She attended a one-room schoolhouse and would teach her family what she learned each day. Her teacher became her mentor and helped Mary get a scholarship to go to college.

Mary had hoped to become a missionary but was told there were no positions. She became a teacher to help raise the status of her race. Mary was greatly influenced by Lucy Craft Laney who ran a Christian mission with an emphasis on character and practical education. Although she was with Laney for only a year, what she learned from her had a tremendous influence on Mary’s career.

Mary had a strong desire to start her own school and relocated to Daytona, Florida. She started with a small house and constructed desks for children out of discarded crates. The school received donations from black churches. She also sought out white benefactors. Over time, she was supported by James Gamble (of Proctor & Gamble), John D. Rockefeller, and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. What began as a school with six girls quickly grew in number.

By 1931, the school had grown in size and curriculum to explore the possibility of becoming a junior college. Mary merged her schools with the Cookman Institute (a boy’s school) to become Bethune-Cookman College. Mary became its president. By 1941, Bethune-Cookman became a four-year college.

Mary expanded her efforts in public service by making the school’s library accessible to the public. When Mary became aware that no local hospital would treat her students, she worked to create a hospital for all residents in the community. Bethune-Cookman became a place of service to all residents no matter their race.

Mary was an advocate for eliminating barriers for African Americans. She was threatened by the Ku Klux Klan but persisted. She mobilized voting access for African American women across the nation. In recognition of her activist spirit, Ebony Magazine called her the First Lady of Negro America.

Many hidden heroes start from very modest beginnings but have the spirit and persistence to rise above their beginnings. Mary Bethune not only rose above her start in life, but she enabled countless other African American youth to follow their life’s journey.

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            “I believe that the greatest hope for the development of my race lies in training our women thoroughly and practically.”– Mary McLeod Bethune

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