Mary McLeod Bethune was one of the most influential eduactivists of the 20th century. She was a stalwart for the civil rights of Black people, women, and the education of Black children. Educational justice was her north star—she was a legend at planning for it and implementing it.
Born in South Carolina in 1875, Mary showed early leadership in organizing her siblings (she was one of 17) and would walk five miles to school. Her family, unable to send everyone to school, chose Mary to be their educational representative.
Bethune initially planned to be a Christian missionary. She graduated from Scotia Seminary and attended Dwight Moody’s Home for Foreign Missions. However, no one would sponsor a missionary trip for her. So, Bethune chose education as her occupational field—what a gain for Black students and communities!
We choose our mentors and our mentors choose us. Mary found herself working at the school Lucy Craft Laney created and led. Lucy Craft Laney became Mary’s lifelong mentor. She helped Mary expand her vision of the impact Mary could make.
Mary called Lucy an integral part of her growth and development as an educator. They understood that the best educators lift as we climb. Mary called Lucy the greatest woman Negro educator in the history of the race.
But, in reality, Bethune’s mentor, Lucy Craft Laney, needed no qualifiers. She was simply one of the best educators in history.
Mama Mary married and relocated to Florida and got right to work, creating the Daytona Beach Literary and Industrial School for Training Negro Girls. In 1921, the school merged with the all-male Cookman Institute to form Bethune-Cookman College in 1929 and began issuing degrees in 1943.
While leading a school and raising a son, Bethune found time to engage in activism on behalf of women and Black people. Bethune risked her life to organize voter registration drives for women after they received the right to vote. She was also instrumental in shifting the Black vote to the Democratic Party and Franklin Roosevelt in 1932.
The leader of President Roosevelt’s unofficial “Black Cabinet,” Bethune later, officially became the highest-ranking Black woman in government. Roosevelt named her director of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration, where she remained until 1944. In 1940, she was elected vice president of the NAACP, a post she had until her passing. Bethune was also the only woman of color appointed by President Harry Truman to the founding conference of the United Nations.
In addition, Bethune was a regular contributor to the Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago Defender.
Bethune was a powerhouse. Indeed, we should all aspire to reach even a portion of her level of impact.
But we must remember that Bethune wasn’t looking to be a powerhouse. She simply sought to equip young people, including her son, through education. Mama Mary set an extremely high bar in organizational, educational, and leadership skills, through which she created so many opportunities for our people. Her dedication, passion, hard work and knowledge opened the doors to be an influencer. We’d do well to remember to do the first things first. Mama Mary was a part of Lucy Craft Laney’s legacy as she crafted her own.
Mary McLeod Bethune, a member of the Black Educator Hall of Fame.
For more information on Mary J. McLeod Bethune, visit the following site.