Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955)
Equal parts educator, politician, and social visionary, Mary McLeod Bethune was one of the most prominent African American women of the first half of the twentieth century--and one of the most powerful. Known as the "First Lady of the Struggle," she devoted her career to improving the lives of African Americans through education and political and economic empowerment, first through the school she founded, Bethune-Cookman College, later as president of the National Council of Negro Women, and then as a top black administrator in the Roosevelt administration.
Born the fifteenth of seventeen children to parents who were former slaves, Mary Jane McLeod grew up in rural South Carolina and attended segregated mission schools. She initially intended to become a missionary but turned to education when the Presbyterian mission board rejected her application to go to Africa. After marrying Albertus Bethune in 1898, she moved to Florida where in 1904 she founded the Daytona Educational and Industrial School for Negro Girls. In 1923, the school merged with the all-male Cookman Institute of Jacksonville and eventually became Bethune-Cookman College, a four-year, coeducational institution. Bethune served as the college's president until 1942 and again from 1946-47. At the same time, Bethune also cemented her position as a leader in African American education and the African American women's club movement by serving as president of state, regional, and national organizations, including the National Association of Colored Women. In 1935, she founded a more politically oriented organization, the National Council of Negro Women, a coalition of black women's organizations focused on ending segregation and discrimination and cultivating better international relationships. She served as its president until 1949.
Between 1936 and 1944 Bethune was director of Negro Affairs in the National Youth Administration (NYA) and chair of an informal Black Cabinet, a group of federally appointed black officials who met regularly to plan strategy and set black priorities for social change. Using her clout as a top-ranking African American administrator in the Roosevelt administration, Bethune lobbied for African American concerns and was instrumental in seeing that African Americans received help from the federal government. Often her efforts were unsuccessful -- her attempt to ensure equal pay for African American federal workers was only partially successful, for example -- but she persisted and African American youths were allowed to participate in NYA programs in numbers proportional to the number of African Americans in the national population.
Bethune did not confine her efforts on behalf of African Americans to government-sponsored programs. She was outspoken in her support for civil rights and actively supported efforts to end lynching and the poll tax. In addition, she picketed Washington businesses that refused to hire African Americans, demonstrated on behalf of the Scottsboro Boys and southern tenant farmers, and was a regular speaker at numerous conferences devoted to racial issues. She was also active in such civil rights organizations as the NAACP and the National Urban League. Passionately committed to African American history, she served as president of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History from 1936 to 1951.
During World War II, Bethune served as special assistant to the secretary of war and assistant director of the Women's Army Corps. In that capacity she organized the first women's officer candidate schools and lobbied federal officials, including Franklin Roosevelt, on behalf of African American women who wanted to join the military.
Bethune left the federal government after the NYA disbanded in 1944. She continued as president of the National Council of Negro Women until 1949 and, in that capacity, attended the founding conference of the United Nations. After her retirement she returned to Florida where she continued to speak and write about civil rights issues. She died in 1955.
While Bethune was a well-established African American leader before she met Eleanor Roosevelt in 1927, her career benefited substantially from ER's enthusiastic support. ER valued Bethune's political acumen and dynamic personality and was instrumental in bringing her to Washington and into the NYA. She also saw to it that Bethune had regular access to Franklin Roosevelt. Besides being political allies, ER and Bethune were very close personal friends. They met on a regular basis, traveled together and attended many of the same meetings and conferences. ER considered Bethune "a dear friend" and the two women remained close until Bethune's death.
Cook, Blanche Wiesen. Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume Two, 1933-1938. New York: Viking Press, 1999, 158-161.
The Concise Dictionary of American Biography. 5th ed. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1997, 55-57.
The Dictionary of American Biography. Supplement 4. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1974. 703-704.
McCluskey, Audrey Thomas and Elaine M. Smith, eds. Mary McLeod Bethune: Building a Better World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001, 3-16.
Black, Allida, ed. What I Hope to Leave Behind: The Essential Essays of Eleanor Roosevelt. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Carlson Publishing, Inc., 1995, 171-178.
Sicherman, Barbara and Carol Hurd Green, eds. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1980, 76-80.