Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial
Backstory and Context
Mary McLeod Bethune was born on a farm outside of Mayesville, South Carolina on July 10, 1875. The daughter of Samuel and Patsy McLeod, two former slaves, she was the fifteenth of their seventeen children. As a child, Bethune worked alongside her parents and siblings on the family’s cotton farm. At the age of ten, she began her formal education, enrolling at Trinity Presbyterian Mission School. Later, she enrolled at Scotia Seminary in North Carolina, graduating in 1894. Bethune then traveled north and enrolled at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, from which she graduated in 1896. Soon after, her hopes of working as a missionary were dashed due to a lack of employment opportunities. In response, she turned to teaching. Bethune first worked as a teacher at the Haines Institute in Augusta, Georgia before taking a teaching position at the Kendall Institute in Sumpter, South Carolina. There, she met and married a colleague, Albertus Bethune. The marriage would produce one child, a son born in 1899.
In 1904, the Bethunes moved to the east coast of Florida. That same year, her marriage to Albertus ended. To support herself and her young son, Bethune opened an all-female boarding school, the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls in Daytona Beach. In 1923, the school merged with the all-male Cookman Institute for Men of Jacksonville. Several years later, in 1929, the school officially became Bethune-Cookman College. Consequently, Bethune became the first female African American college president in American history. She remained in the position until the 1940s.
Before, during, and after her time as president of Bethune-Cookman College, Bethune played a leading role in many important African American organizations and served on a handful of national commissions, advising a number of U.S. presidents. During President Calvin Coolidge’s tenure in the White House, she occupied a seat on the Child Welfare Conference. In President Herbert Hoover’s administration, Bethune served on the National Commission on Child Welfare and the Commission on Home Building and Home Ownership. In 1935, she founded the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), an umbrella organization which sought to foster cooperation between African American women’s groups to address problems facing the African American community, such as discrimination, racial segregation, and lynching. The following year, President Franklin Roosevelt chose her to be an adviser on minority affairs within the National Youth Administration. She would serve in the position until 1944. In 1940, Bethune assumed the office of vice president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a position she would remain in until her death in 1955.
A few years after Bethune’s death, the National Council of Negro Women began raising funds for a memorial in her honor. After sixteen years of fundraising and political wrangling, the monument was unveiled in Lincoln Park in the nation's capital to an estimated crowd of 18,000 people on July 10, 1974, Bethune’s ninety-ninth birthday. Designed by sculptor Robert Berks and composed of a twelve-foot-tall bronze statue of an elderly Bethune handing a scroll symbolizing her legacy to two African American children, the monument was the first in a Washington, D.C. public park to honor an African American woman.
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"Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial." National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior. Web. 12 November 2020 <https://www.nps.gov/places/000/mary-mcleod-bethune-memorial.htm>.
Michals, Debra. "Mary McLeod Bethune." National Women's History Museum. 2015. Web. 12 November 2020 <https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/mary-mcleod-bethune>.
"Our Founder - Dr. Bethune." Bethune-Cookman University. Web. 12 November 2020 <https://www.cookman.edu/about_BCU/history/our_founder.html>.
Tuuri, Rebecca. Strategic Sisterhood: The National Council of Negro Women in the Black Freedom Struggle. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2018.