Her Story: Mary McLeod Bethune

Mary McLeod Bethune was a pioneering American educator and civil rights leader. 

Born Mary Jane McLeod on July 10, 1875, in Mayesville, South Carolina. She was the daughter of formerly enslaved parents. One of seventeen children, she grew up picking cotton alongside her family. From an early age, Bethune had a strong desire to learn. She was one of the first youngsters to sign up for a new mission school for black children, she walked several miles a day to and from school. 

Mary McLeod Bethune won scholarships to attend Scotia Seminary and Chicago’s Moody Institute. After graduation, in 1904, Bethune founded a small school for black girls in Florida that she quickly built into a thriving college-prep and vocational training program. In 1923, she merged the school with Cookman College to create the first fully accredited black institution of higher learning in the state.

She organized thousands of women and became a leader in the effort to build coalitions among black women fighting for equal rights, better education, and political power. She moved to Washington, D.C. in 1936 and founded a new umbrella organization the National Council of Negro Women, she was an active member of the organization until her death in May 1955.

In 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Bethune the director of the National Youth Administration’s Division of Negro Affairs, making her the first black woman to head a federal agency. She was called the “First Lady of the Struggle” for her influence on the Roosevelt administration on civil rights issues.

She was a woman who advised four presidents, who spearheaded a women’s movement, her life was devoted to improving opportunities for young people of color. Along the way, she made a difference to the entire world. She Made History.

“We live in a world which respects power above all things. Power, intelligently directed, can lead to more freedom. Unwisely directed, it can be a dreadful, destructive force.”

– Mary McLeod Bethune

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About The Author


Mother, Photographer, Wisecracker.... not necessarily in that order.

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