From Humble Beginnings

From Humble Beginnings

Everyone at Bethune-Cookman College knows the elements of the legend. The five little girls who were in the first class. The $1.50 Mrs. Bethune had in her pocket. The blackberry juice they used for ink. The boxes that became desks.
From this humble beginning, Mary McLeod Bethune rose to become a legend in education, the peer of giants like Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois of Fisk University and Lincoln University’s Dr. Horace Mann Bond; in the realm of social action, a “clubwoman” par excellence and tireless worker for child welfare and racial uplift; in politics, a valued advisor to U.S. presidents.
And the school she founded, the modestly named Daytona Literary and Industrial School for Training Negro Girls, became her legacy. Bethune-Cookman today has an enrollment of nearly 3,000, an annual budget of more than $50 million and an endowment of $26 million and rising.
For these reasons and many others, “Mrs. Bethune” was the ne plus ultra of Black womanhood for young Black women who came of age in the 1950s and early 1960s. With that shock of snow white hair above her impeccable dress suits, she was a fascinating mixture: a wife and mother, a “race woman,” a highly successful career woman. She managed to embody all the Victorian virtues so admired by our mothers while also embracing thoroughly modern values in education, in her career choices and in her tireless political activism.
Dr. Sheila Flemming, dean of the school of social sciences at Bethune-Cookman College, thinks it’s a shame that more people don’t know about “Mrs. Bethune.”
“There have been so many changes in our communications system and our technology,” she says. “Most people recall Martin Luther King because he came during the age of television. And in terms of our young people and their understanding of Black culture, they tend to take lead from the popular media. So Dr. King they’ve learned about — Malcolm X and Rosa Parks, they’ve learned about them.”
Bethune, who died nearly a half-century ago, might have to wait for a movie treatment or a miniseries before her legend can capture the imagination of a broad segment of the youth population. But her story has nothing if it doesn’t have cinematic sweep.
According to Flemming’s official history of the school, The Answered Prayer to a Dream: Bethune-Cookman College, 1904-1994, Mary Jane McLeod was born July 10, 1875, in Maysville, S.C., just two years before the end of Reconstruction. The 15th of 17 children, Bethune’s parents and most of her siblings were born into slavery. Indeed, the family had to be reassembled from various plantations after the slave regime fell. Her parents then purchased a five-acre farm they called the “Homestead” and set about growing cotton, with young Mary Jane working in the fields alongside her brothers and sisters.
Bethune’s parents saw something special in the little girl, however, and were determined that she accept an offer from a Quaker woman to attend school. She received a scholarship from Scotia Seminary near Concord, N.C., — now known as Barber-Scotia College. After graduating in 1894, she was awarded a second scholarship to an institution for the training of missionaries, Dwight Moody’s Institute for Home and Foreign Missions in Chicago. The dream of going to Africa was thwarted, however, when she was informed after a year at the school that there were “no openings for Negro missionaries in Africa.”
So Bethune simply turned her ample energy to teaching. After a variety of assignments in Georgia and South Carolina, and after marrying Albertus Bethune and bearing him a son, she was given the opportunity to found a school for African American girls in 1904. The school became coeducational in 1923 after the merger that changed the name to Bethune-Cookman College. She served as president until 1942 and for a brief interim period after the departure of the second president. And throughout the first half of the 20th century, the school formed the launching pad for Bethune’s boundless energy.
Her efforts gained tremendous recognition, for her, for the school and for the causes she embraced. Bethune became a national leader capable of uniting all major Black women’s organizations across the nation into one powerful group, the National Council of Negro Women. As its president for 14 years, Bethune led campaigns against segregation and discrimination.
Presidents Coolidge, Hoover, Roosevelt and Truman sought her advice on issues concerning Black Americans, and Franklin Roosevelt appointed her director of the Division of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration. She was the first Black woman to ever head a federal agency.
 Mrs. Bethune died in 1955. But her legacy remains strong.
—  Kendra Hamilton



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