Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Friday, July 10, 2015

Mary McLeod Bethune: "First Lady of the Struggle"

Mary McLeod Bethune (born 10 July 1875)


Mary McLeod Bethune was a noted educator and civil rights activist, the only woman among the African American policy makers and advisers who worked (unofficially, of course) with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, beginning about 1935, in what has become known as the "black cabinet."

Mary McLeod Bethune, 1949
Mary Mcleod was born on 10 July 1875 in Maysville, South Carolina, the fifteenth child of Samuel and Patsy McLeod. Her parents had been born into slavery--as had all of her siblings. Like all the members of the family, she picked cotton--but unlike the other members of her family, she had a chance to go to school.

McCleod went on to become a teacher herself. In 1898 she married a fellow teacher, Albertus McLeod (she kept his name but left Albertus in 1907). With him she moved to Florida, where in 1904 she opened the Daytona Beach Literary and Industrial School for Training Negro Girls with only five students.

Enrollment quickly grew, and within a few years reached 250 students. That school merged with the Cookman Institute for Men in 1923. Now Bethune-Cookman University, the college proudly includes a biography of Mary McLeod Bethune on its website.

In addition to her role as an educator, Bethune was a member of the National Association of Colored Women, she founded the National Council of Negro Women, and, in 1936, joined the National Youth Administration, a WPA agency (she quickly became the director of the Division of Negro Affairs).

In 1945, President Harry Truman named Mary McLeod Bethune to the founding conference of the United Nations--since no African nation sent a female delegate, she is sometimes said to have been the voice of "all the world's women of color." 

From 1931, she was also actively involved in the emerging civil rights movement--and she lived to witness the U.S. Supreme Court's 17 May 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. She also sounded a note of caution in her column in the Chicago Defender, urging her readers not to be deterred by those who threatened violence. Desegregation was a "constitutional duty"-- and a moral imperative:
There are those speaking for us who say we do not want equality and did not want integration. . . . It is not history repeating itself, it is the same history. The law of the land has freed us and guarantees us the right to vote, to earn our living, and now to go to school without distinction or discrimination. Let no man, black or white, say for the rest of us that we do not want to be full citizens. History still speaks. It speaks for the rights of all citizens. And it will not be quiet. 
Nor was Bethune quiet. Although she died just a year later, she left a "Last Will and Testament" passing on her values "to Negroes everywhere in the hope that an old woman's philosophy may give them inspiration." 

"Here, then," she writes, is my legacy: "I leave you love, . . . I leave you hope, . . . I leave you the challenge of developing confidence in one another, . . . I leave you a thirst for education, . . . I leave you respect for the uses of power, . . . I leave you faith, . . . I leave you racial dignity, . . . I leave you with a desire to live harmoniously with your fellow men, . . . I leave you finally a responsibility to our young people." (You can read the entire document by clicking here.

Roosevelt and Bethune
There are many good biographies to choose from, but I'll start you off with this excellent essay from the National Women's History Museum website--in addition to this detailed biography, the site links you to a variety of online resources and provides an excellent bibliography.

The documentary film Eleanor Roosevelt, produced as part of the PBS American Experience series, focuses in part on the cooperative relationship between these two remarkable women--you should be able to access this documentary online via your local PBS station. There's also a great interview--Roosevelt interviewing Bethune--available via the NEH Preservation Project; you can access it by clicking here.


1985 U.S. postage stamp