ABWW Heroine of the Day: Mary McLeod Bethune
Mary McLeod Bethune (July 10, 1875 – May 18, 1955) was an American educator and civil rights leader best known for starting a school for black students in Daytona Beach, Florida that eventually became Bethune-Cookman University and for being an advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Born in South Carolina to parents who had been slaves, and having to work in fields at age 5, she took an early interest in her own education. With the help of benefactors, Bethune attended college hoping to become a missionary in Africa. When that did not materialize, she started a school for black girls in Daytona Beach From six students it grew and merged with an institute for black boys and eventually became the Bethune-Cookman School. Its quality far surpassed the standards of education for black students, and rivaled those of white schools. Bethune worked tirelessly to ensure funding for the school, and used it as a showcase for tourists and donors, to exhibit what educated black people could do.
Bethune served as the president of the Southeastern Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs from 1920 to 1925, an organization that served to amplify black women’s voices for better opportunities. Her presence in the organization earned her the Nationa; Association of Colored Woman national presidency in 1924. Bethune founded the National Council of Negro Women in New York City in 1935 bringing together 28 different organizations to form a council to facilitate the improvement of quality of life for black women and their communities.
Bethune played a dual role as close and loyal friend of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt. Eleanor Roosevelt respected Bethune to the extent that the segregation rules at the Southern Conference on Human Welfare in 1938, being held in Birmingham, Alabama, were changed on Roosevelt’s request so she could sit next to Bethune. Roosevelt frequently referred to Bethune as “her closest friend in her age group.” Bethune, in her turn took it upon herself to disperse the message of the Democratic Party to black voters, and make the concerns of black people known to the Roosevelts at the same time. She had unprecedented access to the White House through her relationship with the First Lady.
On the turnover of Plessy v Ferguson by the U.S. Supreme Court, Bethune took the opportunity to defend the decision by writing her opinion in the Chicago Defender in 1954:
There can be no divided democracy, no class government, no half-free county, under the constitution. Therefore, there can be no discrimination, no segregation, no separation of some citizens from the rights which belong to all… We are on our way. But these are frontiers which we must conquer… We must gain full equality in education …in the franchise… in economic opportunity, and full equality in the abundance of life.