African American Leaders: Mary McLeod Bethune | Presbyterian Historical Society

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African American Leaders: Mary McLeod Bethune

July 17, 2023
Image of Mary McLeod Bethune, 1949, courtesy of the Library of Congress. Image of Bethune-Cookman College, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Each month, the Presbyterian Historical Society is bearing witness to the lives of African American leaders throughout the history of the denomination. Click here to learn how PHS is collecting records of the Black Presbyterian experience through the African American Leaders and Congregations Initiative.

Additionally, a free bulletin insert about each figure is available for download at the end of each blog.


Mary McLeod Bethune was an American activist, humanitarian, and--above all--an educator. Born on July 10, 1875 in South Carolina, Mary was the fifteenth of seventeen children. Her parents, Samuel and Patsy McLeod, were formerly enslaved, and most of her siblings had been born into slavery. As a child, she worked hard with her parents and siblings on their own farm. Her passion for education started at a young age when the granddaughter of her mother’s former owner snatched a book away from Mary, shaming her for not being able to read. She yearned for the ability to read and would pray for it throughout her day. Soon enough, she began to attend Trinity Mission School in Mayesville, which was run by the Presbyterian Board of Missions. Mary had to walk five miles to school and back, but she never missed a day. Her teacher, Emma Wilson, soon became her mentor. At home each evening, Mary taught her family what she had learned in school.

Mary, at the age of 13, enrolled at Scotia Seminary, a boarding school that is now Barber-Scotia College, on a scholarship. Miss Wilson had attended the same school. Many students made fun of Mary for her appearance, but she focused on her studies. At the time, her goal was to travel to Africa as a missionary. After graduating, she went to the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago to achieve this goal. However, after applying to work as a missionary, she was told there was no place for her. While devastating at the time, this was the beginning of her illustrious work as one of America’s most important educators.

Mary McLeod Bethune at Moody Bible Institute. From Mary McLeod Bethune by Catherine Owens Peare. 

For a year, Mary taught at Haines Normal and Industrial Institute in Georgia. The school was founded by Lucy Craft Laney, whose parents, like Mary’s, had been formerly enslaved.  Laney’s educational philosophies and focus on Christianity influenced Mary’s teaching style.

After her time at Haines, Mary transferred to another school in Sumter, South Carolina, where she met her husband, Albertus Bethune. This marriage only kept her home for a year until she went back to teaching. But she realized, upon her return, that teaching was not enough for her. She was determined to start her own school.

Painting of Mary McLeod Bethune by William Bruckner. From Mary McLeod Bethune: A Biography by Rackham Holt.

On October 3, 1904, after moving to Daytona, Florida, Mary established Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls. The school had six students: five girls and one boy, Mary’s son. As the years went on and Mary secured more funding, the school grew. Eventually it enrolled 400 students and employed more than 30 teachers on the faculty. Its library, once it became accessible to the public, was Florida’s first free library available for Black citizens.

The school’s social mission extended beyond just education. After one of her students fell ill and was unable to receive treatment because no local hospitals would take Black patients, Mary started McLeod Hospital outside of a cabin near the school. It operated for around 20 years and was a crucial part of the Daytona community. The hospital was praised for its role during the 1918 influenza pandemic.

Mary McLeod Bethune and Eleanor Roosevelt. From Mary McLeod Bethune: A Biography by Rackham Holt.

From 1936 to 1942, Mary stepped back from her role as President of the school, in order to work in Washington, D.C. In Washington, Mary served on the Advisory Committee for the National Youth Administration (NYA) under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Two years into her career there, she became the Director of the Division of Negro Affairs, making her the first Black female division head. She fought relentlessly to increase employment and education opportunities for Black youth. It was during this time that Mary strengthened her close friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt.

Mary returned to Daytona after the NYA was abolished in 1943. She was forced to formally resign as President of her school due to her failing health. Mary McLeod Bethune died of a heart attack on May 18, 1955 in Daytona, leaving behind a strong legacy.

Beyond being an educator, Bethune advocated for black voting rights, founded the National Council of Negro Women in 1935, and co-founded the United Negro College Fund. She served as the Florida chapter president of the National Association of Colored Women as well as president of the Southeastern Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs. Her school in Daytona merged with the Cookman College for Men and exists today as Bethune-Cookman University. Schools have been named in her honor in over 13 states, including the Mary McLeod Bethune School in Philadelphia.


Want to share this biography with your congregation? Click below to read and download a free bulletin insert about Mary McLeod Bethune.

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