As a small child, Mary Jane McLeod would routinely accompany her mother to deliver the "white people's" wash. Allowed into the white children's nursery, Mary would find amusement playing with their toys. In one instance, she curiously opened a book. Immediately, one of the white children snatched it from her exclaiming, "Put that down. You can't read!" Mary thought, "Maybe the difference between white folks and colored is just this matter of reading and writing." At that moment, the seeds for a life of learning and teaching were planted.
Unlike her parents and 16 siblings, Mary Jane McLeod was born free. Both her mother and father, Patsy and Samuel McLeod, had been slaves on the McIntosh and McLeod plantations in Maysville, South Carolina, a "country town in the midst of rice and cotton fields." After gaining her freedom, Patsy McLeod found herself still financially tied to her former master. She continued to work on the plantation until she saved enough to buy the home in which Mary was eventually born.
All members of the family worked in the fields -- even Mary who at the age of nine could pick 250 pounds of cotton per day. But one day a black missionary woman who was starting a school asked that the McLeod children attend. The family could only afford to send one; Mary was selected. She walked the five miles to and from the Maysville school and did her homework by candlelight. She took all the classes she possibly could and would teach her parents and siblings what she had learned during any free time.
Tragedy struck when the family's only mule died. Suddenly, all hands were needed at home and money grew even more scarce. Mary, devastated by the thought of leaving her studies, returned home to work. Remarkably at this time, a dressmaker in Denver named Mary Chrisman offered the Maysville school scholarship money for one student to continue her studies. Again, Mary was chosen, but this time went off to the Scotia Seminary for Girls in Concord, North Carolina.
Mary's first ambition, after graduating from Scotia, was to be a missionary in Africa, but she turned instead toward studying at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago when offered a scholarship there. After graduating in 1895, she taught in several mission schools in the South where she met and married a fellow teacher, Albertus Bethune, in 1898. After separating in 1907, Mary was left alone to care for their young son.
One year later, Mary Bethune returned to her life's passion. Hearing that the labor needed to build a railroad on Florida's east coast was attracting a significant amount of the South's black population, Bethune strategically purchased a four-room cottage near Daytona Beach. Soon after, in 1904, the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Girls opened with only five students. Through her tenacity and resourcefulness in fundraising, the school expanded to include 250 students just two years later. The school gained in popularity and eventually merged with the Cookman Institute for Men in Jacksonville to form Bethune-Cookman College in 1923. As its original founder, Bethune served as president of this institution, one of the nation's few colleges open to black students, until 1942.
With the success of her school, Bethune went on to be a spokesman for her race and her gender. In 1935, she founded the National Council of Negro Women in New York. Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed her as Director of the Division of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration, a position she occupied from 1936 to 1943. She was particularly well-suited to this role because it allowed her to reach the nation's black youth with her zeal for education. Roosevelt also considered her one of his foremost advisers in the unofficial "black cabinet" in his administration. He frequently consulted with her on minority affairs and interracial relations.
Though her awards and credits were many, she garnered significant criticism from both the white and black communities. Her very vocal nature and active lifestyle often placed her in the public spotlight. Defying segregation and the norms for both blacks and women in America, she was targeted by extremist groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the supporters of Senator Joseph McCarthy. In her 1952 "My Day" column, Eleanor Roosevelt lamented an instance in which a school in Englewood, New Jersey, cancelled an invitation for Bethune to speak because of her alleged connections to the Communist party. Refuting such associations, Eleanor wrote, "If she did belong to any [Communist organizations], I am sure with her keen mind she soon discovered something wrong and was not a member for long. If she went to them to speak, she undoubtedly did them good."
Many within the black community found fault with Bethune's educational philosophy. In the tradition of Booker T. Washington, the prominent black educator, Bethune felt it more important to educate blacks in vocational occupations so that they might support themselves, rather than provide them with an education geared toward higher learning. "My people needed literacy," she said, "but they needed even more to learn the simples of farming, of making decent homes, of health and plain cleanliness." Other black leaders found this problematic. Ida B. Wells, following W.E.B. DuBois' philosophy, felt that access to higher intellectual professions should not be denied blacks in educational facilities. Arguing against Bethune, Wells wrote that "to sneer at and discourage higher education would mean to rob the race of leaders which it so badly needed... all the industrial education in the world could not take the place of manhood." This was a divisive issue when Bethune triumphed over Wells for the presidency of the NACW in 1924, and it continued to be a contributing factor in the dissension within black organizations for years to come.
Despite such controversy, many appreciated Bethune's leadership. Applauding "her wisdom and her goodness," Eleanor dedicated a "My Day" column in memoriam to the black educator at the time of the latter's death in 1955. In 1933, Bethune wrote of the black woman, "She has been quick to seize every opportunity which presented itself to come more and more into the open and strive directly for the uplift of the race and nation. In that direction, her achievements have been amazing..." In her efforts, Bethune aspired to be this woman. Her inner strength and passion for education made her a truly remarkable figure of her time.
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