Encyclopedia Womannica

Warriors: Mary McLeod Bethune

Episode Summary

Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955) was a pioneering American educator and education activist, civil rights activist, stateswoman, philanthropist, writer and humanitarian.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today’s warrior was a pioneering American educator and education activist, civil rights activist, stateswoman, philanthropist, writer and humanitarian. Known as "The First Lady of The Struggle," she spent her entire life battling to better the lives of African Americans. Let’s talk about Mary McLeod Bethune.

 Mary was born on July 10, 1875 in Maysville, South Carolina. She was one of the youngest of Samuel and Patsy McLeod’s 17 children. 

Mary’s parents were former slaves who worked and saved to buy their own plot of land from Patsy’s former owner after Emancipation. They then began growing their own cotton. From age five, Mary worked in the fields at her family’s farm. By age nine, it’s said that Mary could pick an astonishing 250 lbs of cotton a day!

Though Mary was born into a large family, she was the only child in her family to attend school. She walked five miles to and from the local school, and when she returned home she would teach the rest of her family what she’d learned that day. 

Mary found a lifelong mentor in her teacher, Emma Jane Wilson, who recognized Mary’s talents and encouraged her to further her education. Wilson helped Mary get a scholarship to her own alma mater, Scotia Seminary, which Mary graduated from in 1894.

The next year, Mary moved to Chicago to attend Dwight Moody’s Institute for Home and Foreign Missions (now the Moody Bible Institute). Her goal was to become a missionary in Africa, but Mary found that no church would sponsor her mission and was told that black missionaries to Africa weren’t needed. 

If she couldn’t do missionary work, Mary decided that she would become a teacher instead.

After graduation, Mary moved back down to South Carolina where she began her teaching career. Not long after, she met fellow teacher Albertus Bethune, and the two were married. In 1899, Mary gave birth to a son.

The Bethunes then decided to leave South Carolina for Palatka, Florida. 

At first, Mary’s days consisted of selling insurance and putting in long volunteer hours at her local Presbyterian church. But when her marriage failed in 1904, Mary was determined to find a better way to support her young son and a more meaningful way to devote herself to her community. She decided to open up a boarding school for African American girls. 

Mary’s school maintained extremely high educational standards, of which Mary was quite proud, proving to prejudiced doubters  that African Americans were just as intelligent and able to attain as high a level education as their white counterparts. 

Mary’s school eventually became a college, and Mary served as president from 1923-1942. This made her one of only a few women in the world at the time to hold such a position. 

In 1929, Mary’s college merged with the all-male Cookman Institute to form the coed Bethune-Cookman College. The new college began issuing degrees in 1943, and served as a pioneer in setting very high educational standards for other black colleges and educational institutions. The college is still thriving today as Bethune-Cookman University. 

A lifelong advocate for racial and gender equality, Mary was also heavily involved in local and national political movements and organizations throughout her life. 

After starting a number of local women’s clubs and heading voter registration drives after women received the vote in 1920, Mary was elected president of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs in 1924. In 1935, she was named the first president of the National Council of Negro Women.

Mary was also involved in the exodus of black voters from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party in the aftermath of the great depression. A personal friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, Mary was invited to take part in President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration. This included a position as a leader of FDR’s unofficial, but very famous, “black cabinet,” where she advised him on the concerns and issues prevalent within her community.  

In 1936, FDR chose Mary to serve as director of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration, making her the highest ranking black woman in the American government at the time. She remained in that position until 1944.

In 1937, Mary organized an important conference to specifically address and fight back against the discrimination and the continued lynchings that terrorized black communities. Just three years later she was elected vice-president of the NAACP. She held this position for the rest of her life. 

In 1945, Mary was appointed by President Truman to take part in the founding conference of the United Nations. She was the only woman of color in attendance. 

When not running a college, doing important work for the government, or working for organizations to advance the rights and create the space for her community, Mary regularly wrote for two of the leading African American newspapers of the day: The Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier. She also co-founded a life insurance company based in Tampa and co-owned a Florida beach resort. Suffice it to say, Mary probably didn’t have much free time. 

 Mary died in 1955. She was 80 years old. In his obituary, columnist Louis E. Martin wrote, "She gave out faith and hope as if they were pills and she some sort of doctor." 

In 1974, Mary’s life and achievements were honored with a memorial statue in Washington, D.C., and in 1985, with a memorial stamp. Her last home is a National Historic Site.

Tune in tomorrow for the story of another Warrior.

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!