Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955): Founder of the National Council of Negro Women

South Carolina-born activist and educator Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955)

Mary McLeod Bethune sacrificed a lot in her life to improve the lives of African Americans. Founder of the National Council of Negro Women, the educator spent the majority of her life fighting for equality and justice for the black community. She is famed for using education as a tool to champion her campaigns. This led her to establish the Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls which would later be known as Bethune–Cookman University.

Bethune’s civil rights activism led her into politics where she held many important positions in our country. Her relationship with former President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was pivotal in her fight against racism. She was widely admired for her stance against racial injustice and love for humanity.

It is for this reason that we’ll like to talk about the life and works of one of America’s most illustrious educators.

The childhood years of Mary McLeod Bethune

She was born to Sam McLeod and Patsy McIntosh on July 10, 1875. At birth, she was named Mary Jane McLeod and was raised as the fifteenth of her parents’ 17 children. The daughter of former slaves, Mary spent her early years on her parents’ farm.

She sometimes accompanied her mother to the homes of white people to deliver things and do a number of house chores. During one of their deliveries, Mary experienced something that would change her thoughts for the rest of her life. She felt a little intimidated after one of the white children snatched a book from her and made fun of her illiteracy. This was when she developed the mindset that literacy was indeed a potent tool that could be used to uplift her race from their domestic and economic drudgery. This inspired her to get her formal education.

Mary McLeod Bethune

Educator Mary McLeod Bethune was born on July 10, 1875 in a cabin in Mayesville, South Carolina, U.S.

Where did she study?

Mary started her education at Mayesville, South Carolina’s Trinity Mission School, a one-classroom center which was mainly for black children. Despite walking over five miles to school every day, she was determined to get some form of formal education. In fact, she fell so much in love with her studies that she would come home and teach other members of her family. This habit of hers undoubtedly allowed her to hone her teaching skills and develop a life-long passion for education.

After Trinity Mission School, she moved to North Carolina’s Barber-Scotia College (then known as Scotia Seminary) where she studied on scholarship. In 1894, she moved to Chicago and enrolled at the Dwight L. Moody Institute for Home and Foreign Missions. Her dream of becoming a missionary changed after she was told that there was no room for black missionaries. This led her into teaching.

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Bethune as an educationist

Mary McLeod Bethune

African American educationist Mary McLeod Bethune with her students from the Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls in Daytona, c. 1905.

Even in her early adulthood, Mary McLeod still had the mindset that the only way to bridge the gap between the white and the black was through education. With this thought, she decided to teach as many African Americans as possible. Her initial focus was on black girls.

It was for this reason that she moved to Augusta, Georgia in 1896 to start teaching at Lucy Craft Laney’s Haines Normal and Industrial Institute. She was highly impressed with the works of Lucy Craft Laney (1854-1933) and adopted some of her educational methods and policies.

Lucy Craft Laney

Bethune had a big admiration of fellow educator Lucy Craft Laney (1854 – 1933). Laney is best known as the founder of the Haines Institute of Industrial and Normal Education, the first school for black children in Augusta, Georgia. Image: Lucy Craft Laney

Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro girls

When she moved to Florida in the late 1890s, Bethune was determined to start her own school for black girls. Though she was faced with financial difficulties, she founded her educational center in 1904 after obtaining a house in Daytona. She named her school Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls. She trained her students (mostly girls) in a number of vocational skills, including dressmaking and catering.

In order to sustain the school, she allowed prominent white people to be on the school’s board. Some of these people were American industrialists Thomas H. White (1836 – 1914), founder of White Sewing Machines; and James Gamble (1803 – 1891), founder of Procter & Gamble. She also sought support from other rich white companies. In 1931, the school merged with Cookman College for Men to form what would be known as Bethune-Cookman College. The initiative was supported by the Methodist Church.

Mary McLeod Bethune

Mary McLeod Bethune

Human right activism

While working as a teacher, Mary McLeod Bethune fought for equality for all races and genders. By doing so, she joined many groups, including the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). She was named as the head of the group’s Florida chapter in 1917. As a member of the collective, she fought against many racial discriminations amidst threats from violent white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).

In 1924, she became the national president of the NACW. About a decade later, Bethune left the NACW to establish the group known as the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW). She played a key role in commissioning black women officers into the Women’s Army Corps during the Second World War.

In the 1930s, while working as the Director of the Division of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration, she advocated for black colleges to be included in the Civilian Pilot Training Program. She collaborated with Frederick D. Patterson and William J. Trent to establish the United Negro College Fund in 1944. Through the organization, they supported many African Americans with job opportunities and scholarships.

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Political career and relationship with the Roosevelt family

Mary McLeod Bethune

Mary McLeod Bethune (left) and then-U.S. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (center), 1943

Bethune developed a great relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt, U.S. First Lady and wife of U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt. This was probably due to her initiative to improve education in the country. She was a regular guest at the White House, attending many state functions with the country’s first family.

In 1933, when Roosevelt needed people to advise him on issues facing the African American community, he established the Federal Council of Negro Affairs, which was popular known as the ‘Black Cabinet’. Due to their good relationship, the president appointed Bethune to serve as the leader of the council. As a member of the group, she endorsed many anti-racist policies. During WWII, she worked in the office of the Secretary of War as a special assistant.

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Who was she married to?

Aside from being an activist, Mary was also a caring mother and wife. In 1898, at age 23, she became the spouse of Albertus Bethune, a social worker. The couple were blessed with a son called Albert. In 1907, Albertus moved to South Carolina leaving his wife and son. He died from tuberculosis eleven years later.


For her role in fighting discrimination in our country, Bethune has been awarded with many accolades. In 1973, she was rightfully elected into the prestigious National Women’s Hall of Fame. Prior to that, the government of Haiti honored her with their National Order of Honor and Merit, the highest honor of the country.

Due to her contributions to education, many schools across the United States have been named after her. Some of these educational centers are Louisiana’s Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School, the California-based Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune Middle School, and Mary M. Bethune High School which is located in Halifax, Virginia.

Mary McLeod Bethune

Mary McLeod Bethune is praised for her tireless works in campaigning for educational opportunities for African Americans.

How she died

Many Americans were in a state of shock when the news broke that Mary McLeod Bethune had passed away. It was reported that her death, which happened on May 18, 1955, was caused by a severe heart attack. She was 79 years old.

Her tributes were featured in many newspapers in the United States. She was buried in Florida, Daytona Beach to be precise.

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Other interesting facts about Mary McLeod Bethune

Mary McLeod Bethune

Painting of Mary McLeod Bethune by American painter Betsy Graves Reyneau

Renowned philosopher Molefi Kete Asante included Bethune in his “100 Greatest African Americans” list in 2012. A decade later, she became the first African American to be represented in the famous National Statuary Hall Collection.

Below are some other interesting facts about Mary McLeod Bethune:

  • She began her school with just $1.50.
  • Mary McLeod Bethune has been credited for coining the term ‘Black Cabinet’.
  • She established Daytona’s first hospital for blacks in 1911.
  • When the United Nations (UN) was created in 1945, she was the only African American lady present at the event.
African American educator and civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune - World History Edu

African American educator and civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune – quote


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