Mary McLeod Bethune (1873-1955)

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Mary McLeod Bethune was the director of the National Youth Administration’s (NYA) Office of Negro Affairs, c. 1936-1943, and a founding member of the “Black Cabinet,” a group that advised President Roosevelt on issues important to African Americans. Bethune was “the first African American woman to be involved in the White House, assisting four different presidents [and] had the most significant influence on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal Government” [1].

Mary McLeod was born on July 10, 1875, near Mayesville, South Carolina, to former slaves Samuel and Patsy McLeod. She was the fifteenth of seventeen children, many of whom had been “spread out on various plantations” but reunited after the Civil War on a 5-acre plot of land Patsy had bought from her former master. The McLeod family worked hard and ultimately prospered as farmers, “raising food crops, cotton, and rice.” At age seven, Mary started attending a newly-formed school in Mayesville: “She would walk the five miles to and from school, thrilled finally to be able to learn to read and write.” An excellent student, Mary eventually received a scholarship to attend Scotia Seminary in Concord, North Carolina [2]. The seminary was established in 1867 to train African American women to become teachers and social workers [3]. Today, it is Barber-Scotia College.

Mary graduated in 1894 and then attended the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. She was a gifted singer, but decided to pursue a career in education, instead. She started teaching back home in Mayesville and then taught at the Haines Normal and Industrial School in Atlanta, Georgia. In 1898 she married Albertus Bethune. They had one son, Albert, Jr., born in 1899. Mary then taught at a mission school in Palatka, Florida from 1899 to 1903. In 1904, she realized the dream of starting her own school, the “Daytona Normal and Industrial School for Girls” [4], today known as Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Florida [5].

In 1927, Bethune met Eleanor Roosevelt and began a lifelong friendship. Later, Eleanor “was instrumental in bringing her to Washington and into the NYA. She also saw to it that Bethune had regular access to Franklin Roosevelt” [6]. In an early meeting with the president, before she became an NYA administrator, Bethune spoke of the value of the NYA to African American youth and asked him to create more opportunities.“The president was openly moved by her speech, and, grasping her hand in both of his, assured her that he would do his best.” A week later, an Office of Minority Affairs was established in the NYA (later called the Division of Negro Affairs) and Bethune was in placed in charge [7]. The NYA went on to employ hundreds of thousands of young African American men & women [8] and to establish a “Negro College and Graduate Fund” that helped over 4,000 students receive a higher education [9].

In 1941, Bethune pushed for greater participation of African Americans in the war effort, saying, “Despite the attitude of some employers in refusing to hire Negroes… we must not fail America…” [10]. Two years later she was labeled a “communist” by the publicity-seeking Congressman Martin Dies (D-Tex.), a charge that was quickly withdrawn by the Un-American Activities Committee [11]. Bethune worked toward racial equality up to her death on May 18, 1955. The Washington Post remarked: “Not only her own people but all America has been enriched and ennobled by her courageous, ebullient spirit” [12]. Today, there is a memorial statue of Bethune in Lincoln Park, Washington, DC [13].


(1) “Mary McLeod Bethune,” National Council of Negro Women, Inc.,, accessed January 12, 2016. (2) Nancy Ann Zrinyi Long, The Life and Legacy of Mary McLeod Bethune, Cocoa, FL: Florida Historical Society Press, 2004, pp. iv-5. (3) “About Barber-Scotia College,” Barber-Scotia College,, accessed January 12, 2016. (4) See note 2, pp. 6-9, and “Mary Bethune, 79, Educator, Is Dead,” New York Times, May 19, 1955. (5) Bethune-Cookman University,, accessed January 12, 2016. (6) “Mary McLeod Bethune,” The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project, George Washington University,, accessed January 12, 2016. (7) See note 2, pp. 36-37. (8) See, e.g., Federal Security Agency, War Manpower Commission, Final Report of the National Youth Administration, Fiscal Years 1936-1943, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1944, pp. 109-112. (9) Ibid., pp. 51-52. (10) See note 2, p. 45. (11) Joyce A. Hanson, Mary McLeod Bethune and Black Women’s Political Activism, Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2003, p. 187. (12) See note 2, p. 1. (13) “Lincoln Park,” National Park Service,, accessed January 12, 2016.

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