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Black History Month: Mary MacLeod Bethune

To commemorate Black History Month, we continue our intermittent series of profiles of famous South Carolina African-Americans. Today we profile educator Mary McCleod Bethune in an article that originally ran on March 7, 2010.

This portrait of Mary MacLeod Bethune hangs in the S.C. State House
photo by author

Mary McCleod Bethune (1875-1955) was an educator and civil rights leader. Born on a rice and cotton plantation near Mayesville, SC, she was the 15th of 17 children, some of whom had been sold into slavery. After attending a mission school near her home, she attended Scotia Seminary,now Barber-Scotia College in Concord, North Carolina. She then attended the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago where she was the only African-American student.

After teaching stints in Mayesville and Augusta, Ga, Mary taught in Sumter, S.C. for two years. After marrying Albertus Bethune in 1898, Mary went to Palatka, FL and taught at a mission school there. Five years later, she moved to Daytona Beach where she established a school for African-American girls. Over time, this institution grew into what is now Bethune-Cookman University. She retired as its president in 1942, returning for one year in 1946.

Bethune was also active in civil rights serving on the board of the National Urban League beginning in 1920 and also served as President of the National Association of Colored Women and was founder and President of the National Council of Negro Women. She also held several government positions from the administrations of Calvin Coolidge to Franklin Roosevelt. In 1932 she was regarded as one of the 50 greatest American women in an article by Ida Tarbell, a noted journalist and author of the time. She was number ten on the list. She also served as a consultant on the drafting of the United Nations Charter.

Bethune became very close to Eleanor Roosevelt during the 1930s and 40s and was instrumental in assuring that African-American women served as officers in the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps during World War II.

Bethune died on May 18, 1955 and became the first African-American woman honored with a statue in a public park in Washington, DC(Lincoln Park). South Carolina also honored her native daughter with a portrait in the State House in Columbia.

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