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Mary McLeod Bethune

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Discover writers share all of the places, activities and adventure that South Carolina has to offer. Read more from some of South Carolina’s locals and discover what’s happening in the Palmetto State.
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South Carolina educator Mary Jane McLeod
Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune was a notable civil rights administrator and educator.

Name: Mary McLeod Bethune

Born: July 10, 1875

Died: May 18, 1955

Background/significance: Born Mary Jane McLeod to former slaves in rural Mayesville, Dr. Bethune attended segregated mission schools with a goal of becoming a missionary. When she could not get into a mission in Africa, she became a teacher in Augusta, Georgia, and then in Sumter, South Carolina, close to where she was born and grew up.

 

Educator and Civil Rights Advocate

Teacher with line of school students standing on dirt road
Mary McLeod Bethune with students from the Daytona school in 1905.

She married Albertus Bethune in 1898 and moved with him to Florida. In 1904, she founded the Daytona Educational and Industrial School for Negro Girls. Nearly 20 years later, the school merged with the all-male Cookman Institute of Jacksonville, Florida, to become the four-year Bethune-Cookman College, which still educates young men and women today. She served as the college's president and became a national leader in African-American education issues, serving as director of Negro Affairs in the National Youth Administration (1936-44) and an adviser to President Franklin Roosevelt.

During World War II, Bethune served as assistant director of the Women's Army Corps, organizing the first women's officer candidate schools, and lobbied on behalf of African-American women who wanted to join the military. As an early civil rights leader, Bethune also lobbied for an end to the poll tax that kept many African-Americans from voting, especially in her native South, and she picketed Washington, DC, businesses that refused to hire black workers.

She founded and led the National Council of Negro Women until 1949, when she retired and returned to Florida, continuing to be an outspoken proponent of equal rights and education until her death in 1955.

 

Honoring a Legacy

Old clapboard house in park
A replica of Mary McLeod Bethune's birthplace is located at the Mayesville park named in her honor.

South Carolina connection: Bethune was born to former slaves in rural Mayesville in Sumter County, the youngest of 17 children and the only one born into freedom. She often accompanied her mother to work at white people's houses, and that's where a young Mary first picked up a book. She applied her strong work ethic, developed from a childhood working in cotton fields, to learning everything she could, eventually getting a scholarship to study in North Carolina. 

Discover more: South Carolina honors Bethune with a specialized license tag, with proceeds helping build and operate a museum and maintain the Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune Park and nature trail in her hometown of Mayesville. Visits are by appointment only; call (803) 453-5860 for details. 

You can also see her portrait, unveiled in 1976, hanging in the South Carolina State House in Columbia. 

Page Ivey
Discover writers share all of the places, activities and adventure that South Carolina has to offer. Read more from some of South Carolina’s locals and discover what’s happening in the Palmetto State.