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Mary McLeod Bethune – Empowerment Through Action

By Saadia Enait

Mary McLeod Bethune (July 10, 1875–May 18, 1955)

Mary McLeod Bethune was a significant woman of colour who we still acknowledge today. She believed that education was the key to racial advancement, and became one of the most important black educators, civil and women’s rights leaders, and government officials of the twentieth century. The college she founded set educational standards for black colleges today.

Mary McLeod Bethune was born on July 10, 1875, near Maysville, South Carolina. She grew up in poverty, as one of 17 children born to formerly enslaved people. Everyone in the family worked, and by age nine, Mary could pick 250 pounds (around 113 kg) of cotton per day.

When a missionary school for African Americans opened nearby to where Mary lived, she travelled a long way each day to get there. She later received a scholarship to Scotia Seminary (now Barber-Scotia College,) a boarding school for girls in Concord, North Carolina. After graduating from there in 1893, she went to Dwight Moody's Institute for Home and Foreign Missions (also known as Moody Bible Institute) in Chicago, Illinois. She completed her studies there two years later, but with no church willing to sponsor her as a missionary, she began her career as a teacher.

Bethune worked for almost a decade as an educator in South Carolina. While teaching there, she married a fellow teacher – Albertus Bethune, with whom she had a son named Albert McLeod Bethune in 1899. The Bethune family moved to Palatka, Florida where Mary worked at a Presbyterian Church. In 1904, her marriage ended. Determined to support her son, she opened a boarding school, the Daytona Beach Literary and Industrial School for Training Negro Girls. Eventually, the school became a college, merging with the all-male Cookman Institute to form Bethune-Cookman College in 1929. The college was one of the few places that African American students could pursue a college degree. Mary stayed with the college until 1942.

In addition to her work at the school, Mary did much to contribute to American society. She served as the president of the Florida chapter of the National Association of Coloured Women for many years. Additionally, Bethune was a businesswoman who co-owned a Daytona, Florida resort and co-founded the Central Life Insurance Company of Tampa. Honoured with many awards, Bethune’s life was celebrated with a memorial statue in Washington DC in 1974, and a postage stamp in 1985. She was laid to rest behind her home at Bethune-Cookman College.


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