I am Black History. I am Black excellence. I am Mary McLeod Bethune, who was an educator and civil rights activist.
I was born in 1875 in a small log cabin near Mayesville, South Carolina, on a rice and cotton farm. I was the fiftieth of seventeen children born to former slaves. I attended Mayesville one-room black schoolhouse, Trinity Mission School, which was run by the Presbyterian Board of Missions of Freedmen. I was the only child in my family to attend school; I walked five miles each day to and from school. My teacher, Emma Jane Wilson become a significant mentor in my life, she helped me attend Scotia Seminary (now Barber-Scotia College on scholarship from 1888to 1893. I graduated from Scotia Seminary in 1893.
After graduating from the seminary, I went to Dwight Moody’s Institute for Home and Foreign Missions (also know as Moody Institute) in Chicago, hoping to become a missionary in Africa. I completed my studies there two years later. Returning to the south, I began my career as a teacher.
For nearly a decade, I worked as an educator. I worked as a teacher briefly at my former elementary school in Sumter County. In 1896, I began teaching at Haines Normal and Industrial Institute in Augusta, Georgia. During this year, the National Association of Colored Women was formed to promote the needs of black women. I served as the Florida chapter president from 1917 to 1925. I was elected as national president in 1924. After one year at Haines, I was transferred by the Presbyterian mission to the Kindell Institute in Sumter, South Carolina, where I met my future husband. I married fellow teacher Albertus Bethune in 1898. We had one son together Albert McLeod Bethune before our marriage ended in 1907.
I believed that education provided the key to racial advancement. So I moved to Florida, determined to start a school for girls. I moved from Palatka to Daytona, because it had more economic opportunities. In October 1904, I rented a small house for $11.00 per month. I made benches and desks from discarded crates and acquired other items through charity. I used $1.50 to start the Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls. I initially had six students, with five girls aged six to twelve, and my son Albert. Parents of the students and church members raised money by making sweet potato pies, ice cream, and fried fish, and selling them to crews at the Daytona dump.
In the early days, the students made ink for pens from elderberry juice, and pencils from burned wood. The school received donations of money, equipment, and labor from local black churches. Within’ a year, I was teaching more than 30 girls at the school. I also courted wealthy white organizations, such as the ladies’ Palmetto Club. I invited influential white men to sit on my school board of trustees, gaining participation by James Gamble (of Proctor & Gamble) and Thomas H. White (of White Sewing Machines).
Booker T. Washington of Tuskegee Institute visited in 1912; he advised me of the importance of gaining support by white benefactors for funding. I had met with Washington in 1896 and was impressed by his clout with his donors. As I traveled, I seek donations to keep my school operating. A donation of $62, 000 by John D. Rockefeller helped, as well as my friendship with Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife in the 1930s.
In 1930, President Herbert Hoover appointed me to the White House Conference on Child Health. In 1935, I founded the National Council of Negro Women in New York City, bringing together representatives of 28 different organizations to work to improve the lives of black women and their communities.
In 1931, the Methodist Church helped the merger of my school with the boys’ Cookman Institute, forming the Bethune-Cookman College, a coeducational junior college. I became president. Through the Great Depression, my school continued to operate and met the educational standards of the State of Florida. From 1936 to 1942, I cut back my time as president because of duties in Washington, D.C. Funding declined during that period of my absence. However, by 1941, the college had developed a four-year curriculum and achieved full college status. In 1942, I gave up my presidency, as my health was being adversely affected by my many responsibilities.
On May 18, 1955, I died of a heart attack. In 1973, I was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
Join HBCU Campaign Fund for Black History Month “I Am’s,” exhibiting the outstanding achievements of well-known Black individuals who has contributed to the Black community and beyond.
If you would like to contribute an “I Am” of your all-time favorite Black pioneer to be featured, you may e-mail your “I Am” to email@example.com.