Born the 15th of 17 children of former slaves in Maysville, South Carolina, Mary Jane McLeod Bethune eventually became a prominent educator, presidential advisor and political activist. As a child, Bethune quickly discovered education’s relationship to political and economic freedom through reading and writing. She was once ordered by a white child to put down a book after insisting that she could not read.
Unlike her parents and siblings, Bethune was born free and was fortunate to be formally educated at the Maysville School, a missionary school for African Americans. Shortly after graduating from the Maysville School, Bethune continued her education on a scholarship at the Scotia Seminary for Girls in Concord, North Carolina. After graduating from Scotia, Bethune initially wanted to be a Christian missionary in Africa. After teaching and working among blacks she realized that “Africans in America needed Christ and school just as much as Negroes in Africa…My life work lay not in Africa but in my own country.”
Bethune taught in Georgia, South Carolina, Florida and Illinois before settling in Daytona, Florida. There she opened a high school, hospital, and the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls in 1904. The popularity of Daytona Normal led to its merging with the Cookman Institute for Men in Jacksonville in 1923, thus becoming the Bethune-Cookman College.
Bethune’s tireless work led to several federal appointments as director of the National Youth Administration's Division of Negro Affairs (1936-1943), and serving on President Truman's Committee of Twelve for National Defense (1951). In the National Youth Administration position, Bethune also functioned as the leading advisor in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “black cabinet” on minority affairs and interracial relations. As a political activist Bethune was instrumental in integrating the Red Cross and increasing public awareness of lynching. She also served as president of the Florida Federation of Colored Women (1917) and the National Association of Colored Women (1924). In 1935, Bethune founded the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), and in 1940 she served as the Vice-President of the NAACP. Mary McLeod Bethune died in 1955.
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