by Spencer Howard
Mary McLeod Bethune was a prominent African-American educator and public servant in the early 20th century. Born in South Carolina in 1875, she was the 15th of 17 children of former slaves Samuel and Patsy McLeod. As a child she excelled in her studies at a mission school and won scholarships for advanced education. She taught at schools in Georgia, South Carolina and Florida, and in 1904 she established a high school for African American girls in Daytona Beach. In 1923, this school merged with the all-male Cookman Institute of Jacksonville, Florida, and in 1931, the school became a fully accredited college under the name Bethune-Cookman College, with Mary Bethune as its first president. Today, Bethune-Cookman University remains a highly regarded historically black institution of higher learning, enrolling almost 4,000 students.
As the president of a college and a civil rights leader, Bethune gained national prominence. President Herbert Hoover invited Bethune to participate in his White House Conference on Child Health and Protection, and appointed her to a commission to plan a “National Memorial Building” in Washington DC “as a tribute to the Negro’s contribution to the achievements of America.” The Memorial was to be “suitable for meetings of patriotic organizations, public ceremonial events, the exhibition of art of inventions, and placing statues and tablets.” Congress did not back the project and private fundraising also failed. The vision finally became reality more than 80 years later, when the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened on the national mall in 2016.
But Mary Bethune was just getting started. In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt invited her to Washington to serve as a Special Advisor to the National Youth Administration. The following year, he named her Director of Negro Affairs within the NYA, making her the first African American woman to lead a federal agency. During World War II Bethune advocated for African American women to be allowed to serve in the WAACS (Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps) and WAVES (Women Appointed for Voluntary Emergency Service). Later, she traveled to Liberia as the personal representative of President Truman in 1952.
Also in 1935, Bethune founded the National Council of Negro Women, and advocacy organization with the mission to advance the opportunities and the quality of life for African American women, their families, and their communities. The Council House in Washington DC, which served as Bethune’s home and the headquarters of the NCNW, is now a National Historic Site. Today, the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House NHS includes the National Archives for Black Women’s History, and remains the only archive solely dedicated to the collection, preservation, and interpretation of African American women.