Badass Ladies in History: Mary McLeod Bethune

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Mary McLeod Bethune- Educator & Civil Rights Activist (1875-1955). Image via

Happy December, Germ readers! It’s time to get excited this Christmas season about all of the amazing things to come as we celebrate the closing of 2014 and welcome the beginning of 2015.

Today on Badass Ladies in History, I’d like to welcome one amazing lady who I seriously believe should be recognized more for her amazing activism and work for the black community as a whole. I don’t know how I’m going to get through this without completely gushing, but I’ll try to make it through as professionally (and legibly) as possible. Anyway, onto said amazing lady: Mary McLeod Bethune.

Mary McLeod Bethune was born on July 10, 1875, in Mayesville, South Carolina. She grew up in a log cabin as the 15th of 17 children. Her parents and her brothers and sisters were all slaves before emancipation. When Mary was young, she and her siblings toiled the fields and picked cotton for their white masters until emancipation took place and the Union won the Civil War.

When Mary was about 13 years old, she received a scholarship to Scotia Seminary in North Carolina, and she graduated in 1893. After attending the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Mary began to teach in several different Presbyterian schools in Georgia and South Carolina. Mary eventually married and had one son with her husband, Albertus Bethune, a fellow teacher, but the marriage did not last (Albertus left the family); however, they legally remained married until her husband’s death in 1918.

Mary passionately believed that the key to racial advancement among the African-American community was education; so, she devoted her life to educating young women of color by opening a girls academy in Florida in 1904 called the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute. The school mainly focused its curriculum around religious instruction and industrial training, but as the years brought in more students and the school grew, so did the academic curriculum. Bethune remained its president throughout the years, and when the school merged with the Cookman Institute for Men in 1923, the resulting school became known as the Bethune-Cookman College. This college was one of the very few places where African-American students could go to pursue a college degree until 1942.

Following her time as founder and president of the college, Mary went on to become a passionate activist for her community as well as an advisor in the White House for several presidents, including Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover. Her most significant work in the White House, however, was under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1935, Mary became a special advisor to FDR on minority affairs in his Black Cabinet. Mary was an integral part in FDR’s New Deal government, and from 1936-1945, she served as the informal “race leader at large” for the administration.

In 1936, she also became the director of the division of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration. While director of this administration, Mary actively helped black youth find and secure jobs for themselves. Along the way, Mary became a trusted friend to not only FDR, but to his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, as well.

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Image via

Also, in 1936, Mary played a key role in establishing the Federal Committee on Fair Employment, which eventually helped reduce “discrimination and exclusion of African Americans by the growing defense industry.”

Mary continued to work and serve in her community until she retired in Daytona, Florida. She passed away in 1955, but her life will always be remembered as one of service, community, and passion. In her last will and testament, Mary wrote, “If I have a legacy to leave my people, it is my philosophy of living and serving.”

The compilation of Mary’s accomplishments and service to her community in this small article does not even begin to cover all of the amazing things that Mary did in her lifetime. She was truly an amazing individual who gave her life to the service of her community, working tirelessly to see progress in a world that did not have her or the black community’s best interest in mind. Her work and advocacy was honored in 1974 when she became both the first black leader and the first woman to have a monument erected on public park land in Washington DC. This federal monument was commissioned in order to commemorate her life and her contribution to the progression of African-Americans living in a racially divided America.

Her work, her dedication, her commitment, and her motivation to fight for what she believed in truly does warm my heart and make me so happy to know that this badass lady is part of our shared history. She was definitely a force to be reckoned with and someone who sincerely believed that it is a simple and unyielding fact that all black lives matter.

So three cheers to Mary McLeod Bethune! Her life is such an inspiration to read, and I am truly honored that I was able to write about her amazing and beautiful contribution to women’s history.

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