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Mary McLeod Bethune-Go Girl Power!!!

Have you ever learned about historical figures and become so amazed that they could do so much in their lifetimes? Mary McLeod Bethune was one of these people. The more I learned about her life, the more I realized that anyone of us has the power to be a leader if we stand up for what we believe in. Mary was a teacher, an activist, and a strong willed African-American woman who put her foot in the door of politics in a time when being black and being a woman could have slammed that door shut.

Photos of Mary McLeod throughout her lifetime
Mary McLeod Bethune was the first child born into freedom in her family. Her parents were former slaves and before her birth in 1875, some of her 16 siblings had already been sold into slavery. No one in her family could read or write, but none of this stopped her from becoming a leader among African-Americans and women.

From an early age, Mary knew she wanted to learn to read. One day while accompanying her mother, who worked as a servant to a white family, Mary was looking at a book. The little white girl who lived there grabbed it from her hands saying, "Blacks can't read." That incident spurred Mary into a life of service, which would prove that little girl wrong.

When she was very young, a preacher came around looking to send children to school. Because of her strong desire to read, her family chose her to go. She was an excellent student and went to college on scholarship. Believing that education is the key to improving the life of African-Americans, she shared this vision through teaching, community service and eventually politics.

As I learned more about Mary, it seemed that everything she did was to help others. In 1899 she moved to Florida and taught prisoners in a country jail. She sang and read to them, and worked to free those who were not guilty. Eventually she decided to open her own school. With only $1.50 she started the Daytona Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls. Using boxes for desks, packing crates for chairs, and burnt sticks for pencils, she had five students who paid 50 cents per week in tuition. She taught them to sew, cook and to read.

So opening your own school on only $1.50 sounds pretty incredible , doesn't it? What's even more amazing is the little school she began back in 1904 is now a four-year private college named Bethune-Cookman College. And the student body has grown from 5 to nearly 3,000-the majority of whom are African American. Stephanie and I walked around the campus in Daytona, Florida, visited the home where Mary once lived and even used their computer lab. What a change from the one-room schoolhouse that it once was!

Mary was a powerful woman.
Mary created the motto which still drives the students at the college, "Enter to learn; depart to Serve." Living by these words, Mary was able to create an incredible legacy that went far beyond the school. Not only was she a teacher, but she was politically active as well. In August of 1920, the 19th amendment was passed, giving women the right to vote. She knew that if she could get women to vote, then change could happen. Remember, although blacks technically had the right to vote at that time, there were also the Jim Crow Laws to contend with, that made it difficult if not impossible actually vote. Mary was determined to help her community overcome these obstacles. So she rode her bicycle door to door raising money for the poll tax. She taught night classes so that the people in her community could pass the literacy tests. And by the next election, 100 potential voters were qualified because of her efforts.

Mary's headstone tells of a life of service
Mary did meet with some resistant to her work though. The night before the election, eighty Ku Klux Klan members confronted her , warning her against the work she was doing for black and woman voters. Mary stood up to them and they actually left her alone. The next day, she led a procession of 100 blacks, women and men, to the polls, all of them voting for the first time. Word of this spread and soon she became a public speaker on the rights of African-Americans.

A politically important friendship.
Just being involved with her local community was not enough for Mary. She was active at a high level in many national organizations and was even the first woman elected to the National Urban League's Executive Board. She was also president of the 200,000 member National Association of Colored Women. I could fill up the rest of this story just with the different organizations with which she made a huge impact. It was her activist nature that eventually got her into the White House.

It was the 1930's and the Great Depression made the difficult lives of blacks even worse. The usual practice of " last hired, first fired " made their economic situation worse than it had ever been. The unemployment rate for blacks was 2-3 times worse than it was for whites. Mary used her influence in the White House to make sure that programs and issues important to blacks were not left off the political agenda.

In answer to the economic disparity of the country, newly elected President Roosevelt created a series of programs known as the New Deal. Because Roosevelt needed the support of the white, southern Congress to pass his programs, many of the laws still enforced segregation and separate housing and continued to impose discrimination. The early programs of the New Deal did nothing to improve the economic situation of African-Americans.
The bed where First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt would stay
I can only imagine what a strong personality she must have had, and an even stronger will. At a time when being black and being a woman were huge obstacles, she viewed them as challenges to be overcome. She worked closely with both President Coolidge and President Roosevelt driving the issues that impassioned her: race, women, education and youth.


Can't I Take A Sick Day?- I felt like my head was going to explode&

Because of her varied work with women's groups, President Roosevelt's mother invited Mary to attend a luncheon. There were many white, "proper, southern" ladies in attendance who were not "proper" enough to avoid staring . When it was time to be seated for lunch, Mary was unsure where to sit. Mrs. Roosevelt took her by the hand, introduced Mary to her daughter-in-law, the First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and was given a seat of honor between the two. This began a friendship with the first lady that lasted for many years and was the cause of much controversy. At another political meeting in Birmingham, Alabama, Mary and Eleanor couldn't sit together because of Jim Crow laws, so the First Lady picked up her chair and put it down right in the middle of the aisle separating blacks and whites ! Their friendship opened many doors for Mary and led her right into the White House.

Mary's friendship with the First Lady gave her power in the White House
By speaking out for what she believed in, Mary was able to influence the latter policies of the New Deal and saw to it that more blacks were appointed to advisory positions. Her political group, known as the "Black Cabinet" allowed her to serve as an unofficial advisor to President Roosevelt. And as the Director of the National Youth Administration, she was able to monitor funds intended to go towards education and ensure job programs were being directed to blacks. Using the power of these positions, Mary opened the door to blacks in the White House.

Mary McLeod Bethune is buried next to her house.
Although there was still a long road ahead, some would say that it was the work of Mary McLeod Bethune that placed Civil Rights on the national agenda. Her death in 1955 came just before the Supreme Court made segregation in schools illegal. She died before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man . It would be another decade before Congress would overturn the Jim Crow laws that Mary fought against. I wonder what it would have been like for her to see these events. Her will says, "I leave you faith, I leave you hope, I leave you love." She also left us with an example of what one person can do if she stands up for what she believes in.


Please email me at: jennifer@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Daphne - Eleanor Roosevelt: An incomparable pioneer
Rebecca - Together we can make a difference!
Nick - It was a hard knock life during the Depression
Neda - Just get a job? The reality behind homelessness