Mary McLeod Bethune: American Educator and Civil Rights Leader

Mary Mcleod Bethune
Mary McLeod Bethune

“Forasmuch as ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers; But with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot.” (1 Peter 1:18-19)

“Faith is the first factor in a life devoted to service. Without it, nothing is possible. With it, nothing is impossible.”

Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955): Her life epitomized her philosophy of Christian Education. With a sense of divine destiny, clear vision, and daily awareness of God’s presence and purpose, Mary Jane McLeod Bethune, the daughter of freed slaves, became the most influential black woman of her times in the United States. Along with the establishment of the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls, later Bethune-Cookman College, Mary Bethune served as president of many national organizations and held leadership appointments under Presidents Coolidge, Hoover, Roosevelt, and Truman. Her life of profound faith and service left a contagious legacy of perpetual spiritual and social transformation.

Upon graduation from Moody, Mary McLeod suffered enormous disappointment when the Presbyterian mission board denied her request for a position in Africa because she was black. Although Mary never got over the disappointment, she held firm to her belief in God’s role in her personal history. Mary’s missionary focus shifted from Africa to Africans in America when she was appointed by the Presbyterian Board of Education to serve as an eighth grade teacher under the inspiring leadership of former slave, Lucy Croft Laney at Haines Normal Institute in Augusta, Georgia. Mary invested herself fully in the mission of the school, and started an afternoon Sunday School involving hymn singing and Bible stories.

During an assignment at the Kendall Institute, in May of 1898, Mary met and married Albertus Bethune, the son of Sarah and Reverend Albertus Bethune, a Methodist minister. For the sake of Albertus’ employment, the Bethunes moved to Savannah, Georgia, and Mary Jane set aside her plans to teach when she learned she was expecting a child. The dreams and yearnings for missionary work continued, and when her son, Albertus McLeod Bethune was nine months old, the Bethunes moved to Palatka, Florida to work with Reverend Mr. Uggams in a church and missionary school.

Mary Bethune’s service in Palatka involved expanding the school to teach children and youth along with active ministry in the local jails. Mary Bethune was acutely aware of the social injustice that enveloped her people, and she yearned to establish her own school. After five years, with a strong sense of divine guidance, she left Palatka with the determination to start a school in a destitute area of Daytona Beach, Florida. While faced with opposition and insults, Mary Bethune saw the African American community of Daytona as a needy mission field with potential and opportunity.

With faith in God and one dollar and fifty cents, Mary Bethune opened her school, the Daytona Normal and Industrial School for Negro Girls, in a cottage home on October 4, 1904. The school expanded and changed over time under the leadership of the Methodist Church. A high school was added and then replaced by junior college curriculum in 1939. By 1943, the Institute had become a Liberal Arts College granting Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Science degrees in Elementary Education. Without success, Mary Bethune attempted to return Bethune-Cookman to an all-girls school. Mary’s lifetime passion was to serve the particular educational needs of Negro girls. She resigned as president in 1942. Under the leadership of Dr. James A. Colston, the school became a fully accredited senior college by 1946, the year he resigned as president. Mary Bethune then resumed her leadership of the school in 1946 until Richard V. Moore was appointed one year later.

In the final year of her life, Mary Bethune invested herself in the establishment of a foundation that would be located in her home. The foundation provided educational scholarships, an annual women’s conference, a chapel for interracial devotional retreats, and the collection of all documents related to her life. Mary hoped the foundation would inspire ongoing advancement of her life goals. She managed to raise the needed funds for the foundation, and five days before her death, the filing cabinets arrived. At the end of her life, Mary McLeod Bethune acknowledged that the work of her life was filled with divine guidance and a daily awareness of the presence of God. Mary McLeod Bethune died on May 18, 1955, of heart failure in her Daytona home.

From the 100 Most Influential Black Christians in History (Compiled and Edited by the Editors of Click here to purchase on Amazon Kindle for $2.99 

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