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MARY McLEOD BETHUNE

Mary McLeod Bethune Mary McLeod Bethune

Mary McLeod Bethune is one of those unsung heroes behind the Civil Rights movement in America. The daughter of former slaves, she joins the likes of W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington and Marcus Garvey, who by 1920 were already way in the struggle for Black rights. As a matter of fact she greatly admired Booker T. Washington for his Tuskegee Institute and hoped to build an institution in that mold some day too.

She was born on July 10th 1875 in the U.S. city of Mayesville, South Carolina to Samuel and Patsy McLeod. Her parents had been slaves earlier but were freed after the end of the American Civil War in the mid 1960's(Emancipation). At birth she was named Mary Jane and was Sam and Patsy McLeod's 15th child. Some of her other siblings had been born before the Emancipation and thus sold out to other slave owners. They later came back and rejoined the family after Emancipation. Eventhough Mary Jane was born free, she listened a lot to her parents talk about slavery and the horrors it represented.

In 1882 Mary Jane enrolled at Mayesville Mission School. This school had been established by the Presbyterian Church to provide education to children of former slaves. It was nothing fancy, just a one-room school house run by Miss Emma Wilson, an African-American woman from the Presbyterian Church. Mary Jane stayed at Mayesville Mission School for 5 years before proceeding to Scotia Seminary in Concord, North Carolina in 1887. The original idea behind attending Scotia Seminary was so she could become a Missionary in Africa. Her studies at Scotia Seminary were paid for by Mary Chrisman, a white teacher from Denver, Colorado and one of the sponsors of the Presbyterian Church Project for slave children. Scotia Seminary was nothing like Mary Jane had ever seen or imagined before. The neat brick buildings with stairways and glass windows represented a totally new world for her. On top of that, unlike in Mayesville where the student population was entirely black, here it was almost entirely white. Her teachers, both black and white sat together at the dinner table, something she had never experienced in the segregated south. So while she revelled at her new experiences at Scotia Seminary, she could not help but notice how blacks and whites in America lived completely opposite lives. She for example, could not even begin to compare her one-room school house experience at Mayesville to what she had witnessed at Scotia Seminary.

Her experiences at Scotia Seminary however were very helpful to her in terms of race relations because she got a better appreciation of white people and began believing that America could become a much better society than what she had experienced in the segregated south. In 1890 she completed the Normal & Scientific Course, todays equivalent of a Junior College Education (Associate Degree). Students who completed this course were certified as teachers. During Summer vacations, she could not afford to go back home so her Principal at Scotia Seminary found her jobs with white families(household chores). The little money she made from such jobs she sent to her parents back in Mayesville. Mary Jane graduated from Scotia Seminary in 1894. Her parents could not raise the money to travel to Concord to attend her graduation. In July 1984 she was accepted at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois for a 2 year program to prepare her for Missionary work in Africa. Her sponsor at Scotia, Miss Chrisman, continued to sponsor her here too. She was the only African-American among some 1,000 students at Moody Bible Institute. Her experiences at Scotia Seminary however had already helped her a lot so she easily fit in.

She completed her studies at Moody Bible Institute in 1896 and immediately applied for a Missionary position in Africa. However the Presbyterian Church declned her request saying that there was no position available for an African-American. She then applied for a teaching position and was assigned to the Haines Normal & Industrial Institute in Augusta, Georgia. This school was started by a well known African-American educator Lucy Craft Laney, and it prepared students to become teachers or go to college. The school was located in a poverty stricken area. As an 8th grade teacher at the Institute, she encouraged parents to bring their children to the institute's sunday school where she would teach them Christian values. It was while teaching at Haines that Mary Jane realized just how much Missionary work was needed in America. Eventhough she had aspired for Missionary work in Africa, she found out that Missionary work was equally important right here in America, especially among poor black kids. In 1897 she transferred to Kindell Institute in Sumter, South Carolina, where she took up another teaching position. It was at Kindell Institute that she met Albertus Bethune, a fellow teacher, who she later married in 1898.

In 1819 the Bethunes got their first and only child Albert McLeod Bethune. With the birth of her son, she took off from her active teaching career to take care of her little baby. Her desire however to build a school for black girls was still very much alive. So when a Pastor from Palatka, Florida invited Mary Jane Bethune to help him open a Mission School there, she jumped at the offer, dragging her husband and son with her to Florida. She taught at the Mission School for a few years until October 3rd 1904 when she started the Daytona Normal & Industrial Institute for Negro girls, located in Daytona Beach, Florida. In the beginning she only had 5 girls enrolled. She had planned to model her Institute in The Tuskegee mold of Booker T. Washington, so that the girls could learn Industrial skills as opposed to academic courses. This put her at odds with W.E.B. DuBois and many other black civil rights activists who had insisted that blacks needed to learn academic courses to be able to compete with their white counterparts in professional white collar jobs. They did not want blacks to just settle for industrial jobs. Apparently, thats exactly what most white people wanted because just like they had contributed generously to Booker T's Tuskegee institute, donations came pouring in for Mary Bethune's Institute. In less than 2 years, enrollment in her Institute had grown to about 250 girls and climbing.

Mary Bethune was a very accomodating person. Rather than dismiss DuBois and her other critics as troublemakers, she listened to their point of view and actually incorporated some academic courses at her Institute. In 1907 the school's new building was dedicated, and she named it Faith Hall, which she had borrowed from Scotia Seminary. In 1908 Booker T. visited the school to congratulate her on the good work she was doing. That same year however, Mary Bethune was having problems on the personal front as she and her husband parted ways, citing conflicting career interests. In 1911 she opened the Patsy McLeod Hospital, after her mother, which was basically a 2-bed cottage run by Dr. T.A. Adams, an African-American physician. It eventually expanded to a 2-storey, 26-bed hospital that doubled as a training school for her nursing students. The cost of running the hospital however proved to be too much on the Institute and so she turned it over to the City of Daytona Beach. In 1914, with the start of World War I, she received an unexpected telegram summoning her to Washington, DC, to speak on African-American participation in the Red Cross. She gave a flawless presentation in DC, and the Red Cross later held a rally at her Daytona Institute which was attended by distinguished guests, among them Florida Governor, and U.S. Vice President Thomas Marshall. This gave her Institute the much needed publicity and opened the door further for donations.

In 1920 she organized a large black voter registration drive in preparation for Daytona Beach's Mayoral elections. This pitted her squarely against the Ku Klux Klan, then very eager to prevent blacks from voting. The candidate she supported won the Mayoral elections, boosting her political stakes in Daytona Beach. As a matter of fact that same year(1920) she was elected President of the Florida Federation of Colored Women's Clubs. As President of this powerful Women body, she focussed on providing facilities for troubled black girls. In 1921 under her leadership, the Florida Federation of Colored Women's Clubs established a shelter for delinquent black girls. Already a well known figure in Florida, Mary Bethune used her clout to secure State funding for the shelter. She was however very careful not to take any state funding for her Institute because that would bring State control, and with that, enforcement of segregation laws. In 1923, her Daytona Institute merged with Cookman Institute to become Bethune-Cookman College. Cookman Institute was originally a school for African-American boys. Cookman Institute was struggling with enrollment at that time so it became beneficial for them to merge with Bethune's Institute. As for Bethune, the boys coming from Cookman would be an added source of revenue so she was not losing anything. She was still going to be head of Bethune-Cookman College.

In 1924 she became a member of the Commission on Interrracial Cooperation, a Multi-racial organization working to improve conditions of poor citizens in the south. She used her position to push for better schools in the south. That same year, 1924, she ran for the Presidency of the National Association for Colored Women(NACW) and won. This victory was huge for her and it propelled her to the national stage. Her new found big-shot status even earned her an invitation in 1927 from Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, then Governor of New York, and later President of the United States in 1932. Eleanor Roosevelt's invitation came after Mary Bethune had been invited to a 4-month European tour. Her tour took her to among other places, The House of Commons, Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey in London. She also visited the Vatican City in Italy where she met Pope Pius. One of her most interesting experiences in Europe came during her visit to Switzerland where for the first time she saw a black rose. She never knew there even existed a black rose so this discovery really excited her. Like other blacks who had visited Europe before her, Mary Bethune realized that racism was not as rampant as it was back in the States. People in Europe addressed her with a lot of respect and she was almost never made aware of the fact that she was black, unlike the case back in the U.S.

1928 turned out to be a very special year for Mary Bethune. This was the year she finally met Mary Chrisman, the woman who had paid for her education. This was an emotional meeting for both of them and for Mary Bethune in particular, who learnt that there are more good people out there than bad. Miss Chrisman for her part was very glad that she had invested wisely in Mary Bethune. That same year, Mary Bethune received an invitation from U.S. President Calvin Coolidge to attend a child welfare conference in Washington, DC. She was the only African-American invited to the Conference. Praises and accolades continued to come her way and in 1935, she was awarded the prestigious Spingarn Medal from the NAACP for her efforts to improve the lives of black people. In 1935 she founded the National Council of Negro Women(NCNW) and in the same year, was appointed to the National Advisory Committe of the National Youth Administration(NYA). The NYA had been launched by then U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt to help youths affected by the 1929 great economic depression, get job training and work programs. In 1929 she was appointed head of NYA's Division of Negro Affairs, another major task for her. In addition to this, she was head of Bethune-Cookman College and the National Council of Negro Women. As Director of NYA's Division of Negro Affairs, she became the first African-American woman to head a federal agency, eventhough on the overall federal grand scheme of things, she was still in the minor leagues.

As one of NYA's Directors, she also became part of the Black Cabinet, a group of distinguished African-Americans who advised President Roosevelt on issues important to blacks. Her especially close ties to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt meant she pulled the most clout in the Black Cabinet. Her clout continued through Roosevelt's re-election in 1936. In 1940 Eleanor Roosevelt honoured her and her students by visiting Bethune-Cookman College. At that time however Mary Bethune's health was seriously deteriorating because of her Asthmatic condition. She needed a Sinus operation. The First Lady pulled some strings to enable her get an operation at the all-white Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland in 1940. There were no black physicians in this hospital, which meant she had to be operated on by whites. With this realization came a quiet feeling of victory in her heart because she felt like she had forced the high-powered doctors to work on her, or to be subservient to her if you will. She however requested and was granted her wish, that there be 2 prominent African-American physicians to observe her operation. Though she had come here for emergency medical reasons, she had in the process made a huge civil rights stride by breaking the color barrier at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

In 1941 the Florida State Department of Education approved Bethune-Cookman College as a 4-year Liberal Arts College. In 1945 Mary Bethune gave an address as a representative of African-Americans on the death of President Roosevelt. President Roosevelt had died on April 12th 1945. Prior to his death, President Roosevelt had planned a Conference in San Francisco, California for April 25th 1945 to draft a charter for the United Nations. This new organization would be dedicated to world peace, and would use lessons learnt from the World War II that had just ended, to avoid another such catastrophe. The U.S. State of Department selected Mary Bethune as an official consultant in the Conference. Other notable consultants named included W.E.B. DuBois & Walter White of the NAACP. At the Conference, Mary Bethune and her fellow African-Americans pushed for among other things, the need to end colonialism in Africa.

In 1949 she received an honorary Doctorate Degree from Rollins College. That same year she was invited to visit Haiti by Haiti's President Dumarsais Estime, who awarded her the Medal of Honour and Merit. She travelled to mother Africa in 1952 to attend the inauguration of President William Tubman of Liberia. While there she was awarded the Star of Africa, one of Liberia's highest honours. In 1955 she went back to Switzerland, this time to speak at a Conference of the Moral Re-Armament Movement. This was a movement that strove to achieve unity among all world peoples. They opposed among other things, Apartheid in South Africa.

Mary McLeod Bethune died of heart failure on May 18th 1955 in her Florida home. In 1974, a bronze Statue of her was erected at Lincoln Park in Washington, DC. Her's became the first monument erected for an African-American in the Nation's Capital and was also a first for a woman, African-American or otherwise.

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