Mary McLeod Bethune: A Faith-Filled Journey as an African-American Educator, Stateswoman, and Civil Rights Activist

Mary McLeod Bethune

Mary McLeod Bethune

Who would have imagined that a young black girl, born in 1875, who did not learn how to read until she was eleven years old could become a college professor and eventually a college president?  Mrs. Mary McLeod Bethune was that young girl, and she imagined what would have seemed impossible for black people at that time in the United States, but she believed that, with God, she could achieve the improbable.  In fact, she once said, “Faith is the first factor in a life devoted to service.  Without it, nothing is possible.  With it, nothing is impossible” (qtd. in Jackson 82). In the years following the Emancipation Proclamation, most African Americans did not have great access to the American Dream, and, in fact, for many their faith in God became the foundation for a lifelong journey toward spiritual wholeness and economic, educational, and social access, as Mrs. Bethune demonstrates in a life of Christian service by caring for the most vulnerable in American society. 

Though they were born into slavery, Sam and Patsy McLeod, Mary’s parents, eventually lived to see the end of it.  In fact, her parents, devout Christians, ended up owning their own land and house in South Carolina, where they worked on their farm with their seventeen children.  Since the family had little money, the children did not have access to an education, but young Mary had a burning desire to learn to read, and she would learn to do so but not until she was eleven years old.       

With the support of her teacher, Mary earned a scholarship to attend a boarding school, Scotia Seminary for Negro Girls in North Carolina.  At the school, she learned the “head-heart-hands” approach (Jackson 80).  “Head: Study to build your intellect,” “Heart: Grow your spiritual life with God,” and “Hand: Acquire practical survival skills so that you can maintain your independence” (80).  This philosophy fit well for Mary because she had been given the support by her parents to pursue her education, they had given her a Christian foundation, and they had taught her how to work on the family farm.  

After graduating from Scotia Seminary in North Carolina in 1893, Mary McLeod wanted to teach as a missionary in Africa, but the missionary board of most Christian denominations in the United States had a policy preventing black people from serving as missionaries in Africa; needless to say, she was deeply disappointed, so she turned her attention to teaching blacks in the United States.  She went on to attend and graduate from Moody Bible Institute in Chicago in 1895.  She eventually returned to South Carolina for a teaching job, and it was in Sumpter, South Carolina, that she met her future husband during choir practice, Albertus Bethune; they were married in 1903 (Jackson 81).  Now with her life partner by her side, Mrs. Bethune put her energy not only into teaching but also into starting an educational facility.  

Mrs. McLeod Bethune had a vision to open her own school because she saw that the schools were lacking in educational development for black students.  She could teach reading, science, math, and music.  Along with that, she could teach black students about their heritage, which was lacking in majority-culture schools.  So she formulated a plan to start a school.  Her husband died before seeing the dream become a reality, but she was eventually able to open her first school in 1905 in a rented four-room seaside cottage in Daytona Beach, Florida.  She started with five girls and her little son Albert.  She had a big faith in God that all things were possible through Him if she only believed. In her school, she used the “head-heart-hands” approach.  She also taught students how to grow and harvest their own food.  She also developed a choir (84).      

The school later grew to over 250 girls, and then a two-year college followed.  Her school later merged with an all-boys’ school, Cookman College.  The merged colleges became known as Bethune-Cookman College.  Ms. Mary McLoad Bethune was its president for over thirteen years (85).  Under her administration, the college won full accreditation and grew to an enrollment of more than 1,000 students. To this day, the university still stands on the motto of “Our whole school for Christian service – Enter to learn-depart to serve.” 

Being the visionary that she was, would Mrs. Bethune have imagined that two decades into the Twenty-first Century, Bethune-Cookman College would have nearly 4,000 students?  Along with increased enrollment, Bethune-Cookman University offers 35 undergraduate programs and a master’s degree in transformative leadership.  The university has maintained its distinction as a small, private, co-educational, and residential institution, still educating the minds of black students as she envisioned.  Along with establishing an educational institution for black students, Mrs. Bethune saw a need to mobilize and organize for civil rights and human rights for minority groups, especially for black women.

As a champion for the rights of minority women, Mrs. Bethune founded the National Council of Negro Women in 1935.  This organization provided a unifying mission for African-American women who often found themselves struggling for equality at the intersections of race, gender, and class in America.  Women who were part of the organization sought for “unity of purpose” and “unity of action” (ThoughtCo).

Mrs. Bethune’s efforts on behalf of education and of improved racial relations brought her to national prominence, and in 1936 she moved to Washington DC when she was appointed administrative assistant for Negro affairs (the title changed in 1939 to director of the division of Negro affairs) of the National Youth Administration by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and she served in that post until 1944.  

After this service, President Roosevelt appointed Mrs. Bethune as an adviser on minority affairs, and she assisted the secretary of war in selecting officer candidates for the U.S. Women’s Army Corps (WAC).  She had to be released from her work as a university president but continued to stay on part-time so that she could work at the national level (Jackson 86).

Mrs. Mary McLeod Bethune’s life is a testament of service, revealing the obedience of one little black girl, born roughly ten years after the Emancipation Proclamation, who believed the impossible and attained it with God’s help.  

Works Cited

“About B-CU.” April 14, 2018.

Jackson, Tricia Williams.  “Mary McLeod Bethune.” Women in Black History.  Revell 

Publishing Group, 2016, pp.75-87.

ThoughtCo.  National Council of Negro Women: Unifying for Change. April 14, 2019.

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About the Author: Dr. Mary Alice Trent is Professor of English in the Division of Modern Language and Literature, where she served as Division Chair for seven years.  Dr. Trent, founder and past chair of the Conference on Christianity, Culture and Diversity in America, teaches courses in advanced writing, professional writing, freshman composition, rhetoric, and African-American literature. Along with journal articles, poetry and stories, Dr. Trent has had four books published: Ethics in the 21st Century by Pearson Publisher in New York, USA; The Language of Diversity by Cambridge Scholars Publishing in New Castle, England; Religion, Culture, Curriculum, and Diversity in 21st Century America by University Press of America in Maryland, USA; and Cultivating Visionary Leadership by Learning for Global Success: Beyond the Language and Literature Classroom by Cambridge Scholars Publishing in New Castle, England.