Mary McLeod Bethune, the daughter of former slaves, grew up to start a university and advise presidents.
Life presents many strange moments in our lives. One such moment occurred in the life of Mary as a child when a white girl insisted she could not read. It was a spark in the young girl to realize just how important it was to be able to read, comprehend and value education. She realized that the ability to read and write separated white and black people and this ignited her desire to learn and grow.
Mary McLeod Bethune was not very well-known in the annuals of modern history which is sad because she was a great lady who became a revered educator, activist, humanitarian, and leader who was known in her day as “the first lady of the Negro race.” She was indeed larger than life whose every word, speech, and appearances became noteworthy to people across America.
Today, the Park Service is engaged in bringing her to the American public’s attention. In fact, it rankled many historians that young and old alike have no recognition of her contributions.
“For her to be who she was, coming from where she came from, and to have this courage–to me, it’s just profound, noted Joy Kinard, central district manager of National Capital Parks-East. “But you don’t hear much about her anymore.”
At the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House in Washington, DC, the Park Service is determined to change that. Located in the former headquarters of the National Council of Negro Women, an organization Bethune founded, the site is devoted to documenting the life and history of Bethune and African-American women.
She was the *15th of 17 children, grew up on a farm in South Carolina and began working in the fields at age five. She was the only child in her family to be educated, she had to walk 8-miles to school each day. She must have had a wonderful teacher who enriched her educational experience.
Bethune eventually founded a girl’s school in Daytona Beach, Florida. As the story goes, she started it with $1.50 and just six students. The school grew to include a farm, high school, a nursing school and eventually became Bethune-Cookman University. Its founder’s vision and school motto to this day: ENTER TO LEARN, DEPART TO SERVE.
Bethune rose to become a national leader who served four presidents. A good friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, she was a highly visible member of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Administration. Roosevelt appointed her the head of the Negro Division of the National Youth Administration, making her the highest ranking African-American woman in the federal government.
From 1935 until her death in 1955, she left a record of great achievement. She founded the Council of Negro Women; led the fight against racial discrimination as well as inadequate housing, health care, and employment opportunities. She recognized the need for uniting the efforts of women nor the loss of wasted talents that women offered toward American enrichment.
During WWII, she recruited black women for the armed forces and was an asset to President Truman in integrating the Armed Forces of the United States in 1948.
Her death did not stop her contributions. Years later as the building deteriorated where much had been done in her life work, piles of documents, letters, pictures–a rich history of the period was uncovered by Collier-Thomas.
The rowhouse was restored and bought by the Park Service in 1994. Visitors can obtain a copy of her last will and testament before leaving. Bethune wrote in the famous document: “I leave you love. I leave you hope…I leave you racial dignity.. I leave you finally, a responsibility to our young people.”
A HISTORIC CONCERT
When Marian Anderson was famously refused permission to sing to an integrated audience at Washington’s DAR Constitution Hall in 1939, Bethune called the White House to intervene, setting the stage for Anderson’s subsequent performance at the Lincoln Memorial before a crowd of 75,000.