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Mary Jane McLeod Bethune

#blackhistoryProfilesFebruary 17, 2022

The civil rights work of Mary Jane McLeod Bethune changed history. 

A passionate educator and advocate,  she not only led voter registration drives after women fought for and won the right to vote, she also founded Bethune-Cookman college in 1923, working to provide equal access to education. 

Her parents wanted a better life for her as the 15th of 17 children, and sent her to a mission school where she excelled and won a scholarship to attend Scotia Seminary for Negro Girls in North Carolina, before spending a year at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. 

As an educator, Bethune’s “female uplift” philosophy led her to found the Daytona Beach Literary and Industrial School in 1904 that was focused on the education and training of young Black women. With scant resources, she created pencils from charred wood, ink from elderberries, and mattresses from moss-stuffed corn sacks. The school started with five students and grew to 250 after two years. The boarding school merged with Cookman Institute to form Bethune-Cookman College in 1923.

Bethune founded and led numerous organizations, including the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, the National Council of Negro Women and the Mary McLeod Hospital and Training School for Nurses for Black women. Her relentless activism paved the way for her to be named  director of the Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration, where she fought to end discrimination and lynching.

In 1940 she was named vice president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons (NAACP) and was also a founder of the United Negro College Fund. She was also appointed as the only Black woman at the United Nations’ founding conference in 1945.

Bethune, who always stressed a relentless pursuit of “unalienable rights of the citizenship for Black Americans”, also co-owned a resort in Daytona, Florida, and co-founded the Central Life Insurance Company of Tampa.

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