August 23, 2017

It Started with a School: Mary McLeod Bethune and Her Enduring Legacy

A photograph of Bethune

photo by: Washington Area Spark/Flickr/CC BY NC 2.0

Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955).

Mary McLeod Bethune’s dream of establishing a school of her own finally became real when she opened the doors of Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School for Girls in 1904 with five students. She believed that education was the most important step for African-Americans to have better lives, and so her school was her first step toward this goal. By the time of Bethune’s death in 1955, the school merged with the local Cookman Institute to become a high school, then a junior college, and then an accredited four-year college named Bethune-Cookman College. Today, it is now a university and the only Historically Black College and University (HBCU) founded by a woman.

The school’s trajectory from humble beginnings mirrors Bethune’s own life. She was raised in a family of 19 in South Carolina to parents who were formerly enslaved. In fact, Bethune was the first child born free to her parents. At the age of 10, and with the help of benefactors, she was able to enter school to become a missionary. When she couldn’t find a position in Africa, she became a teacher in Georgia and South Carolina. Bethune always wished to start her own school, though, and she moved with her husband from South Carolina to Daytona Beach in 1904.

In the early 1900s, Daytona Beach was a small town in rural Florida. It was also segregated. Its African-American population worked primarily on the nearby railroads and lived in tight-knit neighborhoods filled with shops, churches, and other small businesses.

Daytona Beach was also a winter haven to the country’s wealthy white population. Bethune, knowing her dream school needed funding to be a success, established relationships with the people who vacationed in Daytona. This proved successful, and Bethune actively worked with both middle-class African Americans and white philanthropists to fund the school throughout her lifetime, including Booker T. Washington and John D. Rockefeller.

Bethune is best remembered as an educator, but she didn't call it a day after founding her school. For the rest of her life, she actively fought against segregation in Daytona Beach and elsewhere in the country to improve the lives of African-Americans. By working with a myriad of local and national organizations, Bethune became a national voice for minorities.

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Because Daytona Beach became the place Bethune called home for the rest of her life, she worked tirelessly to improve conditions in the town. In 1911, after realizing the country’s segregation policies were harming the health of African-Americans, who were often turned away from hospitals, Bethune established McLeod Hospital in Daytona Beach. It worked in tandem with the McLeod Training School for Nurses, and offered a sanctuary for African-American nursing students and the sick in the racially segregated town.

In addition to the school, she in turn educated the country on issues related to civil rights, especially in regards to African-Americans and women. Just one year after becoming president of Bethune-Cookman College, Bethune became president of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (NACW) in 1924. In 1935, Bethune founded The National Council of Negro Women to connect African-American women across the country and to establish a national voice for them. One year later, she became the first African-American woman to lead a federal agency, the Office of Minority Affairs, which was part of the National Youth Administration (NYA). In all, she worked on committees under an impressive total of five U.S. presidents.

Bethune stands outside her house in Daytona Beach sometime in the 1940s.

photo by: Library of Congress/LC-DIG-fsa-8d24694

Bethune stands outside of her house in Daytona Beach, sometime in the 1940s.

While it’s challenging to quantify Bethune’s work and the effect it had on the lives of students at Bethune-Cookman and those touched by the organizations she was affiliated with, it is possible to gain insight into her life by visiting the university's campus and stopping by a modest two-story framed structure Bethune called home.

Known as "The Retreat" during her lifetime, Bethune's c. 1905 home on Bethune-Cookman’s campus allowed her to entertain the many people she met through her activism. Today the house is called the Mary McLeod Bethune Foundation and operates as a museum. Ashley Robert Preston, curator of the house, explains that it was “a museum and an initiative of Bethune. She willed the house to the Foundation and opened the house to visitors in 1953, two years before she died.”

Though it was renovated in 2012, her house remains largely as it did when she lived there until her death. Today it is a National Historic Landmark that commemorates the first female president of an HBCU and her invaluable role in early 20th century social history.

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Meghan White is a historic preservationist and a former assistant editor for Preservation magazine. She has a penchant for historic stables, absorbing stories of the past, and one day rehabilitating a Charleston single house.

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