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Mary McLeod Bethune
July 10, 1875 – May 18, 1955
Mary McLeod Bethune was an American educator, civil rights activist and presidential advisor. She served as an advisor on African-American affairs to four presidents, including presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman. She was born on July 10, 1875 near Mayesville, South Carolina, on a rice and cotton farm to Patsy and Samuel McLeod, who had been salves.
Bethune saw education as the key to improving the lives of African-Americans and had the chance to continue her educational pursuits when a woman offered to pay for the expenses of one child to attend Scotia Seminary in North Carolina. After attending Scotia Seminary, she received a scholarship to the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. After attending Moody Bible Institute, Bethune dedicated herself to educating others. She worked in Augusta, Georgia at the Haines Institute, and Sumter, South Carolina at the Kendall Institute before moving to Daytona Beach, Florida. In 1904, Bethune opened the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Girls with five students. The school gained in popularity and eventually merged with the Cookman Institute for Men located in Jacksonville, Florida to form Bethune-Cookman College in 1923. As its original founder, Bethune served as president of this institution, one of the nation’s few black colleges, until 1942.
During the 1930s, despite her success, one of Bethune’s goals remained unfulfilled. The goal that remained unfulfilled was the notion of forming a coalition of black women’s organizations. Bethune strongly believed that if black women presented a united front, then black women could become a powerful force for promoting political and social change. During a meeting in March 1930, Bethune held a meeting to officially propose her idea, but the women present at the meeting decided to set up a committee for further study rather than immediately form a coalition. However, on December 5, 1935 in New York City, Bethune addressed another opportunity to present her notion. The women present at this meeting were representatives of 29 diverse black women’s organizations and agreed to establish the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW). NCNW was incorporated on July 25, 1936 in Washington, DC. The four major objectives, as defined in the organization’s constitution were:
- To unite member organization into a National Council of Negro Women.
- To educate and encourage Negro women to participate in civic, political, and economic activities in the same manner as all other Americans participate.
- To serve as a clearing house for the dissemination of information concerning activities of organized colored women.
- To initiate and promote, subject to the approval of member organizations, projects for the benefit of the Negro.
After forming NCNW, Bethune was appointed as Director of the Division of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration by Franklin D. Roosevelt, a position she occupied from 1936 to 1943. Roosevelt also considered her one of his foremost advisers in the unofficial “black cabinet” in his administration. Bethune died on May 18, 1955. Her death was followed by a number of editorial tributes, including Eleanor Roosevelt dedicating a “My Day” column in memoriam. Bethune has been honored with a sculpture in Lincoln Park in Washington, DC (1974) and a US Postage stamp (1985).