Through love and faith and determination I have been persistently facing obstacles, small and large, and I have made them stepping stones upon which to rise. Mary McLeod Bethune
Mary McLeod Bethune is remembered as an educator and an activist. Mary was born with three strikes against her – she was poor, black, and female. This indomitable woman who believed that “Love, not hate, has been the fountain of my fullness” spent her life building a better world.
Mary McLeod Bethune was born on July 10, 1875 near Mayesville, South Carolina. This was during the period of ‘reconstruction’ in the South. Tempers often ran as hot as the weather and as the nation adjusted, unfair anti-black violence escalated. Through it all many black men and women maintained their faith in God. There was a strong belief that education would raise the status of black people in the perceptions of others and would result in better jobs.
Originally Mary trained at Moody Bible Institute (as it is called today) to become a missionary to Africa. It seems incredible to us now, but she was told that black women were not allowed to go on the missionfield. This didn’t stop Mary for long. Realizing that this setback was only a ‘stepping stone upon which to rise’ she put her heart and soul into educating poor black children, starting with girls. Mary believed that as the mothers in the homes, girls would grow up to have a profound impact on their children’s education.
Mary married Albert McLeod Bethune in 1898. They had one son. Sadly, due to disagreements that couldn’t be reconciled Mary and Albert ended the marriage in 1907.
Mary founded the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls in Daytona, Florida in 1904. She started with only five students but the school grew to over 250 students in only a few years. Mary remained the president and leader until 1942. In 1923 the school combined with the Cookman Institute for Men. The newly combined school, called the Bethune-Cookman College, was one of the few places where African-American students could get a college degree.
Besides her important work at the school, Mary also became politically involved. She was president of the Florida chapter of the National Association of Colored Women for many years. Mary worked with presidents Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, and Franklin D. Roosevelt to improve life for African-Americans. She served on many committees and started up her own organization – the National Council of Negro Women. In 1936 President Roosevelt appointed her to be the director of the Division of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration. In this position Mary was able to help young people find jobs. At this time Mary also served as an advisor to both Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.
In 1942 Mary retired from Bethune-Cookman college. She moved to Washington DC and lived there for several years. She was an early member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In the early 1950’s, President Truman appointed her to be the official delegate to Liberia for the inauguration of their new president.
Eventually Mary returned to Florida to retire. She passed away on May 18, 1955.
Before she died Mary wrote “My Last Will and Testament.” She wanted to leave her people with a legacy of serving. Here are her ‘bequests’.
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 uses of power. (This power should be placed on the side of human justice.)
I leave you faith.
I leave you racial dignity.
I leave you a desire to live harmoniously with your fellow men.
I leave you finally a responsibility to our young people.
Faith Courage, brotherhood, dignity, ambition, responsibility – these are needed today as never before. We must cultivate them and use them as tools for our task of completing the establishment of equality for the Negro.
If I have a legacy to leave my people, it is my philosophy of living and serving. As I face tomorrow, I am content, for I think I have spent my life well. I pray now that my philosophy may be helpful to those who share my vision of a world of Peace, Progress, Brotherhood and Love.
In 1973, eighteen years after her passing, Mary McLeod Bethune was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. In 1974, a seventeen-foot bronze sculpture commemorating Mary’s work in education was erected in Lincoln Park, Washington DC. It is the first statue ever dedicated on federal land to honor either an African-American or a woman.
I found a wonderful video production of Mary’s life on YouTube. It is in three parts totaling a little over 26 minutes. It gives great historical background and contains many contemporary photos. I highly recommend it!!
- Mary McLeod Bethune Part One desktop, Jan. 24, 2009, Brian Stewart 9:42
2. Mary McLeod Bethune Part Two desktop, 9:46
3. Mary McLeod Bethune Part Three desktop, 6:44