Mary Jane McLeod Bethune was an American educator, stateswoman, philanthropist, humanitarian and civil rights activities. She was a co-founder of UNCF and one of the few women to serve as college president in the pre-Civil Rights era. She was born on July 10, 1875 in Mayesville, South Carolina. She was the 15th of 17 children. Her parents were slaves and she began working in the fields by the age of five.
From a young age, she was determined to learn to read. She attended a one room schoolhouse and the only child in her family to attend school. She taught her family all she learned. With the help of her teacher, she received a scholarship to attend Scotia Seminary and later the Dwight L. Moody’s Institude for Home and Foreign Missions. Her hope was to become a missionary to Africa. In 1898, she married Albertus Bethune and moved to Savannah, Georgia. In 1899, a visiting minister inspired the couple to move to Palatka, Florida, where she ran a mission school and began an outreach to prisoners. In 1907, her husband left her and their son, but the couple never divorced. Albertus Bethune died in 1918. She later moved to Daytona, Florida determined to start a girls school. With $1.50 she started her girls school with six students. She spoke to man organizations and worked closely with them for support. She also championed for a hospital and in 1931, the public hospital in Dayton opened a separate hospital for people of color. In 1931, she merged with another school and with the assistance of the Methodist Church formed the Bethune-Cookman College, where she served as president, while continue to campaign for funding. Bethune served on the boards of numerous other organizations over the years, including as president of the National Association of Colored Women and Director of the National Yough Administration.
She became close friends with President Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and campaigned for Civil Rights. In 1942, she stepped down to the presidency for health reasons. She died of a heart attack on May 18, 1955. The New York Times noted she was, “one of the most potent factors in the growth of interracial goodwill in America.” Bethune is quoted as saying more than once her school and students were her first family and her son and extended family came second. Her students referred to her as “Mama Bethune”. The Washington Post said: “So great were her dynamism and force that it was almost impossible to resist her … Not only her own people, but all America has been enriched and ennobled by her courageous, ebullient spirit.” She is said to treat everyone with courtesy and promote goodwill with others. Even enemies she worked to make an ally. Her hometown newspaper, the Daytona Beach Evening News printed, “To some, she seemed unreal, something that could not be. … What right had she to greatness? … The lesson of Mrs. Bethune’s life is that genius knows no racial barriers.” Her home in Daytona Beach is a National Historic Landmark and her home in Washington, D.C. is a National Historic site. There is also a memorial sculpture of her in Lincoln Park. “The Legislature of Florida designated her in 2018 as the subject of one of Florida’s two statues in the National Statuary Hall Collection.”