Mary McLeod Bethune was born July 10, 1875 in Maysville, South Carolina
. Her parents, Samuel and Patsy McLeod, were former slave
s. She was one of 17 children in her family. They all worked picking cotton for a living from a very young age.
Against incredible odds she was able to obtain an education, mostly through missionary societies and seminaries. She originally hoped to work as a missionary in Africa, then changed her mind when she realized "Africans in America needed Christ and school just as much as Negroes in Africa. . . . My life work lay not in Africa but in my own country."
She went on to work for years as a teacher and activist in Georgia, South Carolina, Illinois, and finally, Florida. It was in Daytona Beach, Florida that she founded the school for which she became famous, what was eventually to become Bethune Cookman College. In 1904, however, it was called the "Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls", enrollment stood at five students, and they met under a tree because they didn't have a building. Tuition was $0.50/week, but students who couldn't pay were educated for free. It doesn't sound too impressive, but when you consider the fact that at that time and place the educating of Black children was just short of a hanging crime, she had to be a very brave woman to stand out under a tree with five little girls and openly teach them to read.
The school expanded, admitted boys, became a high-school, then a college, merged with the Cookman Institute in 1923, and never stopped fighting for education and equal rights for African-Americans. Mary McLeod Bethune served as president and principal for 40 years.
And that still isn't it! She also served as president of
the Florida Federation of Colored Women (1917) and the National Association of Colored Women (1924).
She became the director of the National Youth Administration's Division of Negro Affairs in 1936, the Vice-President of the NAACP in 1940, and served on President Truman's Committee of Twelve for National Defense (1951). She also continued working with many organizations, such as the National Urban League, the Association of American Colleges, and the League of Women Voters.
She worked under presidents Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, and Theodore Roosevelt on child
welfare, housing, employment, and education. In June of 1936, she was assigned director of the Division of Negro Affairs and became the first Black woman to serve as head of a federal agency. The desegregation of the Red Cross was a direct result of her intervention.
When she died on May 18, 1955, she became the first Black woman in the United States to have an official monument erected to her. It stands in Lincoln Park, Washington D.C.