This month marks the 67th anniversary of the death of Mary McLeod Bethune, famous civil rights pioneer and educator. When she died on May 18, 1955, her hometown newspaper, the Daytona Beach Morning Journal, ran the following headline: “World Renowned Educator Has Heart Attack at Home; She was 79 years old. Dr. Bethune’s home was on the campus of the school she had “built with $1.50 and faith in God.”
News of his passing was followed by editorial tributes in newspapers across the country. The Oklahoma City Black Dispatch wrote that she was “the No. 1 coin for anyone who believes in America and the democratic process”. The Atlanta Daily World declared his life to be “one of the most dramatic careers ever played at any time on the stage of human endeavor”. And in the mainstream press, one newspaper suggested that “the story of his life should be taught to every schoolboy for generations to come.” Even former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt commented, saying, “She fought for the rights of her people but never with resentment or bitterness, and she taught both her own people and her fellow white Americans many valuable lessons.”
Recognized as the “First Lady of Black America” by Ebony Magazine in July 1949, Mary Jane McLeod was born on July 10, 1875 to former slaves in Mayesville, South Carolina, the 15th of 17 children and the first to receive formal education. Realizing that black people had not been full recipients of their American heritage of equal protection under the law, all of his efforts were aimed at leveling the playing field, especially for young black people. She dedicated herself to her quest for equality for black Americans, eventually earning the title of “First Lady of Wrestling.”
Having learned the value of hard work and education, Dr. Bethune worked tirelessly to improve educational opportunities for black Americans, especially at a time when segregation and discrimination were so prevalent across the country. Wanting to tap into the potential of youth, Bethune opened a school for black girls called the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute in 1904. After nearly two decades of operation, the school was merged with the Cookman Institute for Boys, giving birth in 1923 at what is now Bethune-Cookman University. She became the first woman to serve as a college president, serving as head of the school from 1923 to 1942.
Making herself available to be able to impact the future of black America, Dr. Bethune served under several presidents, beginning with Calvin Coolidge and continuing to Harry Truman, and she became the first black woman to head a federal agency as a member of President FDR’s “Black Cabinet” from 1936 to 1944.
Most importantly, Mary McLeod Bethune created a legacy by leading the way in breaking down barriers for those who followed her. She demonstrated a willingness to find common ground, seeking to build consensus and work towards practical solutions.
Larry Sutton is a retired educator who taught at Clinton High School.