Mary McLeod Bethune

Lived:July 10, 1875—May 18, 1955 (aged 79)
Career:Educator, author, civil rights leader

Mary Jane McLeod Bethune was born July 10, 1875, near Mayesville, South Carolina, the 15th of 17 children. Scholarships enabled her to attend Scotia Seminary and then Moody Bible Institute. Turned down when she applied to go to Africa as a missionary, Bethune returned to the South. She met and married Albertus Bethune, and began to teach school.

In Daytona, Florida, in 1904, Bethune scraped together $1.50 to begin a school with just five pupils. She called it the Daytona Literary and Industrial School for Training Negro Girls. A gifted teacher and leader, Bethune ran her school with a combination of unshakable faith and remarkable organizational skills. She was a brilliant speaker and an astute fundraiser. She expanded the school to a high school, then a junior college, and finally it became Bethune-Cookman College.

Continuing to direct the school, Bethune turned her attention to the national scene, where she became a forceful and inspiring representative. First through the National Council of Negro Women, then within Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal in the National Youth Administration (Director of the Division of Negro Affairs, 1936 to 1944), she worked to attack discrimination and increase opportunities for Blacks. Behind the scenes as a member of the "Black Cabinet" and in hundreds of public appearances, she strove to improve the status of her people.

Bethune was recognized for her hard work during her lifetime and received many honors. She was a recipient of the Spingarn Medal in 1935, the Frances Drexel Award for Distinguished Service in 1937 and the Thomas Jefferson Award for Leadership in 1942. She received an honorary Doctor of Humanities degree from Rollins College in 1949, the first African American to receive an honorary degree from a white southern college. She received the Medal of Honor and Merit from the Republic of Haiti in 1949 and the Star of Africa from the Republic of Liberia in 1952. After a lifetime of achievements, Mary Bethune died on May 18, 1955. On July 10, 1974, 99 years to the day after her birth, Bethune became the first woman and the first African American to be honored with a statue in a public park in Washington, D.C. The statue, in Lincoln Park, is a reminder of her achievements. South Carolina has honored its native daughter as well, hanging her portrait in the state capitol in Columbia.