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Portrait of American educator and activist Mary McLeod Bethune (1875 - 1955) with the United States Capital Building in the background, circa 1950. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Happy Women’s History Month! This is the 10th blog of a series of blogs called “Women’s History Month Heroes You Should Know”. This series will be a collection of my research into little-known American women who have made history in one way or another (or multiple ways!).

The focus of today’s blog is Mary McLeod Bethune, an American educator and civil rights activist.

This is her story.


Born in 1875 in South Carolina, Mary McLeod Bethune grew up helping her family pick cotton on the land they sharecropped. She attended a boarding school in North Carolina called Scotia Seminary. After graduating in 1894, she moved to Chicago to attend Dwight Moody’s Institute for Home and Foreign Missions. Here, she trained to become a missionary. Unfortunately, though, she found that no church would sponsor her. This led her to become an educator instead.

Marriage and Son

When Bethune moved back to South Carolina to teach for a few years, she married a teacher named Albertus Bethune. In 1899, they had a son together. The family decided to move to Florida where Bethune worked for a Presbyterian Church on top of selling insurance. Unfortunately, the couple’s marriage ended only five years after their son was born. Bethune became the boy’s primary caregiver and needed more income to take care of him.

Opening the Boarding School

The solution came with the opening of her boarding school called Daytona Beach Literary and Industrial School for Training Negro Girls. This all-girl boarding school eventually combined with an all-male school called the Cookman Institute in 1929. The two soon became the co-ed college now known as Bethune-Cookman College. During this time, Bethune fought for voting rights and racial justice. She became heavily involved with many organizations and held leadership roles in several, such as the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs and the National Council of Negro Women.


Having been friends with Eleanor Roosevelt, Bethune was elected as the director of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration by FDR in 1936. Four years later, she became the vice president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons (NAACP), which she held until her death in 1955. She also notably helped create the Women’s Army Corps, attended the founding conference of the United Nations in 1945, and published writings in popular African American newspapers such as the Chicago Defender. Her life and legacy were honored with a Washington D.C. monument in 1974. Read more about Mary McLeod Bethune here.

Source: WomensHistory.org

Read another post from the blog series “Women’s History Month Heroes You Should Know” here.