Some people’s stories are so compelling that the facts alone weave a tale far more interesting than any writer’s pen. Such is the case of the remarkable Mary McLeod Bethune.
We will divide this article into two parts. Here we look at her early life and how she came to be on the path to becoming one of the most prominent African American women of the first half of the twentieth century. She championed education, civil rights and economic empowerment. She served as adviser to five U.S. presidents. And her ultimate legacy, Bethune-Cookman University, in Daytona Beach.
Born in 1875 near Mayesville, South Carolina, Mary Jane McLeod was the fifteenth of 17 children born to Sam and Patsy (McIntosh) McLeod, both former slaves. Her parents eventually saved and bought their own land, built a cabin and grew corn and cotton. They instilled strong religious values in their children. Mary worked in the fields with her parents until the age of 10.
A black missionary woman, Emma Jane Wilson, was founder of Trinity Presbyterian Mission School. She encouraged attendance by the McLeod children. However, the family could only afford to send one child to the school and Mary was selected. It was then the world opened up to the young girl when she began her education in the one-room school. The candlelight by which she did her homework would burn brightly in her heart the rest of her life illuminating her love of learning.
Mary walked five miles each day to attend school. As the only person in her family able to go, she would share what she learned with them. Her destiny as an educator was cast.
Emma Jane Wilson become an important mentor in her life. Wilson helped Mary attend Scotia Seminary (now Barber-Scotia College) in Concord, N.C. on a scholarship from 1888 to 1893, the same college she herself had attended. The following year Mary attended the Dwight L. Moody’s Institute for Home and Foreign Missions in Chicago, today it is known as the Moody Bible Institute. Her dream of becoming a missionary in Africa was dashed when she was told black missionaries were not needed.
The hallmark of change agents is tenacity and perseverance. Mary pivoted and became a teacher.
In 1898 she married fellow teacher Albertus Bethune and they lived in Savannah for one year. She gave birth to her only child, Albert in 1899. The family moved later that year to Palatka, Florida, where Mary opened the Palatka Mission School.
While her husband remained behind in Palatka looking after business interests (he became a salesman), she and her son moved to Daytona Beach in 1904. At that time there were a great deal of laborers working in North Florida on the Florida East Coast Railway. As reported in Reader’s Digest years later, Mary was quoted as finding, “ignorance and meager educational facilities, social prejudice and crime. This was the place to plant my seed.” *
With only $1.50 in savings, she was able to convince the owner of a four-bedroom home in Daytona to let her rent it for $11 per month, even though she did not have all of the rent up front. So on Oct. 3, 1904, she officially opened her school with six pupils – five little girls: Lena, Lucille and Ruth Warren; Anna Geiger; Celest Jackson; and her son.** Through her tenacity and fundraising prowess, (among activities she sold sweet potato pies and also boiled eggs to railroad workers for lunch) the school grew to more than 250 pupils just two years later.
Under Mary’s leadership, the school expanded and underwent several changes, in particular, its name. By 1919, it made its third name change, transitioning from Daytona Educational and Industrial Institute to Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute. In 1923, the all-girls school began the process of merging with Cookman Institute, a coed school led by the Methodist Church. It had been founded in Jacksonville in 1872 and was the first school to offer higher education to African Americans in the state of Florida.
It was not until 1925 the merger was complete and the school became the Daytona Cookman Collegiate Institute. In 1931, the school became Bethune-Cookman College.
In our next article we will note some of the incredible accomplishments and many “firsts” of Dr. Bethune, including her being the first black woman president of a college in the U.S.; founding the National Council of Negro Women and serving as its president until 1949; attending the founding conference of the United Nations in San Francisco; and serving as an advisor in minority affairs in the Roosevelt administration.
** Mary McLeod Bethune in Florida: Bringing Social Justice to the Sunshine State by Ashley N. Robertson