Bethune—educator, activist

Mary McLeod Bethune overcame tremendous obstacles to rise to prominence. Bethune once a field hand, became a college president and Spingarn Medal winner.

Born in 1875, she was the 17th child of former slaves who had become sharecroppers in South Carolina. An education was hard to come by, but Mary walked the five miles to school and devoted many hours to study. Once she graduated from school she went to college, where she became a teacher.


She started a school in Florida with five students that grew to more than 600. In 1923 Bethune merged with Cookman, to form Bethune-Cookman College. But this was just one aspect of her life. She lent her support to the NAACP in 1909 and served as president of the NAACP’s Women’s Clubs. During the depression she left her position as college president to become Director of the Division of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration and through her leadership, enabled over 60,000 Negroes to remain in school. As NYA Director she was a part of the Black Cabinet.

She also participated in anti-discrimination protests. When enforcement of the Fair Employment Practices Commission was weakened she was one of the many people who spoke out against this at a Madison Square Garden protest in 1942. She served as an advisor to President Truman. Her philosophy was epitomized in a phrase she often used in lecturing Black audiences: “This is our day!”

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