Saturday, January 31, 2009
Mary McLeod Bethune
The first biography I remember reading was of Mary McLeod Bethune. It was from a series of biographies for children and had these great black, white, and teal illustrations. I read it over and over again, and when I left for college I brought it with me. I wasn't really sure what it was about her story that stuck with me so I figured I'd do some internet research.
Mary McLeod was born in 1875 near Louisville, South Carolina. Her parents were former slaves, and Mary was the 15th of their 17 children. She was able to attend a free school that had been started by Emma Wilson, a black missionary, who became Mary's first mentor. When Mary had exhausted the school's resources, Emma found a white patron who paid for Mary to attend the Scotia Seminary, a Presbyterian school for black girls. After that Mary got another scholarship to attend Dwight Monody's Institute for Home and Foreign Missions in Chicago. Upon graduating Mary moved to Georgia and then Florida where she taught, did social work, and sold insurance to make ends meet. She married Albertus McLeod in 1898. For about a year she taught at a school run by Lucy Craft Laney, who inspired her to start her own school for young black girls.
Its was 1904 and at $11 dollars a month Mary started renting the house that would become her school in Daytona Florida. The school was next to a dump and Mary and her son Albert would pick through the discarded items to furnish her new school. Local business donated more furniture and they managed to make ink from berries and pencils from burned wood. In 1904 she had six students- five girls and her son. By 1910 she had 102 students, most of whom lived at the school. Mary worked non stop to raise funds for the school, she received aide from the all white Ladies Palmetto Club and convinced influential white men(including James Gamble of Proctor and Gamble) to sit on the board of the school. The Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls taught home economics and trade skills as well as science, math, English, business, and foreign languages. They eventually added classes to prepare teachers when the attendance swelled to 351 students in 1920.
Since the local hospital would only accept whites Mary started her own hospital right next to the school. It went from two to twenty beds and then the city adopted it in 1927. In 1923 the school became the Bethune-Cookman School when it merged with Cookman Institute for Men and became coeducational. The standard of education was so high that it rivaled the local all white Daytona High School. Mary was adamant about community involvement so the school ran as both a day and night school and had smaller missionary schools run by students for the local workers. They also hosted Sunday afternoon community meetings that welcomed both blacks and whites, a rare case in those days.
Booker T. Washington's visit to the school in 1912 inspired Mary McLeod Bethune to travel to seek more funding for the school. John D. Rockefeller donated 62,000 in 1905 and through Mary's non stop work the school managed to stand strong during the great depression. In 1936 the high school section of the school was closed and it continued on as an accredited college. It still flourishes with 36 buildings on 70 acres of land.
Yet, the school is really just the jumping off point. In 1924 she became president of the 10,000 member National Association of Colored Women. This was considered the highest position a black woman could have, and yet Mary wasn't satisfied. In 1935 she created the National Council of Negro Women. She made sure both of these organizations had a physical presence in Washington DC. Mary became fast friends with both Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt and was appointed to the National Youth Administration in 1935. She made sure there was a special division that would concentrate on the needs of young black students. Mary campaigned for Franklin Roosevelt and convinced many black voters to switch over to the Democratic Party. When in the south Eleanor Roosevelt would insist on the de-segregation of events so she could sit next to Mary who she told people was "the best friend I have in my age group". She used her influence with the Roosevelt's to form the Black Cabinet which was a group of black leaders that would advise the President on issues facing black citizens. They were able to greatly influence political appointments and the disbursement of funds.
The number of organizations and councils that Mary headed or founded is really too long to list here. She remained president of the Bethune-Cookman School until 1942. She was working to get black women to the voting booths as soon as they could legally vote and she never stopped. At a time when light skinned blacks were usually more effective in the public eye, Mary was very dark. She carried a cane not because she needed one but because she thought it made her look more important. Her students called her Mama Bethune but adults wouldn't get a response unless they addressed her formally. She could win over anyone - when a white neighbor was threatening her students with a gun she managed to handle it so well that he became interested in the school and was known to tell people "If anyone bothers Old Mary, I will protect her with my life". When blacks weren't aloud to use the beach, Mary organized a group of blacks to buy a piece of beach front property that was open to both blacks and whites. Not much stood in her way.
The end of the book I had as a kid showed Mary McLeod Bethune and Eleanor Roosevelt having tea in a garden. The really moving part about her life was that she didn't just rise to that level on her own, she wanted to bring everyone with her. She wasn't attempting to be a token symbol of what can be achieved, she fought every day for not just the right but the means for blacks and women to be afforded the same education as white men.