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Mary McLeod Bethune, (1875 – 1955), was born to Samuel and Patsy McLeod, emancipated slaves, in the summer of 1875 near Maysville, South Carolina. She was the fifteenth child of the 17 McLeod children. Her parents were able to obtain five acres of land where she watched her parents work side-by-side “cutting rice and chopping fodder.”

“When I was only nine, I could pick 250 pounds of cotton a day,” said Bethume.

Mayesville did not have schools for young black students until 1882 when Emma Wilson, an African-American teacher founded Trinity Presbyterian Mission School. In 1885, at the age of 10, Mary became the first in her family to attend Miss Wilson’s school, which required her to walk five miles each way to the one-room schoolhouse.

Her determination so inspired her teacher that she chose Mary McLeod as the recipient of a scholarship to attend Scotia Seminary, all girls’ school for black students. She graduated in 1894 at the age of 21. Influenced by the mission work provided to her, she sought a career as a missionary herself in Africa. To prepare for it, she was provided another small scholarship to attend Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. When the year long course was finshed, McLeod requested and was denied the opportunity to serve by the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions.

Eleanor Roosevelt visits Bethune Cookman College

Undeterred, McLeod returned to her former school where she began teaching, “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 said.

Within a few years, She was hired by Lucy Laney, founder and principal at the Haines Normal and Industrial Institute in Augusta, Georgia. In 1898, at age 23, she married Albertus Bethune. Several historic accounts of Mary McLeon Bethune show her husband as a fellow teacher, others as a clothes salesman. In 1899, Albert McLeod Bethune was born and the family moved to Palatka, Florida.

After six years of marriage, Albertus found it difficult to find work and moved back home to South Carolina. At that same time in 1904, Bethune and her young son moved to Daytona Beach, where on October 3, 1904, she opened the Daytona Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls nside a rundown building that she persuaded the owner to accept a downpayment of $1.50, against the $11 per month rent. Her first students were: Lena, Lucille, and Ruth Warren, Anna Geiger and Celest Jackson.

According to the VCU Social Welfare History Project, Bethune furnished the school with “discarded supplies and found a barrel to use as a desk and crates for chairs.”

“I haunted the city dump and the trash piles behind hotels, retrieving discarded linen and kitchen ware, cracked dishes, broken chairs, pieces of old lumber. Everything was scoured and mended.”

In less than two years, the school had 250 students.

According to Bethune-Cookman University’s history page:

Through Dr. Bethune’s lifetime, the school underwent several stages of growth and development and on May 24, 1919, the Daytona Educational and Industrial Institute was changed to Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute. In 1923 the school merged with Cookman Institute of Jacksonville, Florida (founded in 1872) and became co-ed while it also gained the prestigious United Methodist Church affiliation. Although the merger of Bethune’s school and Cookman Institute began in 1923, it was not finalized until 1925 when both schools collaborated to become the Daytona-Cookman Collegiate Institute. In 1931, the College became accredited by the Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools of the Southern States, as a Junior College with class B status, and on April 27, 1931, the school’s name was officially changed to Bethune-Cookman College to reflect the leadership of Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune.

There is so much more to tell about this extraordinary woman and we will absolutely do so in future. Take some time to read Dr. Bethune’s Last Will & Testament.

It begins: Sometimes as I sit communing in my study I feel that death is not far off. I am aware that it will overtake me before the greatest of my dreams – full equality for the Negro in our time – is realized. Yet, I face that reality without fear or regrets. I am resigned to death as all humans must be at the proper time. Death neither alarms nor frightens one who has had a long career of fruitful toil. The knowledge that my work has been helpful to many fills me with joy and great satisfaction. Continue reading Dr. Bethune’s Last Will & Testament.