Born: July 10, 1875
Died: May 18, 1955
Background/significance: Born to former slaves in rural Mayesville, Mary Jane McLeod attended segregated mission schools with a goal of becoming a missionary. When she could not get into a mission to Africa, she became a teacher in Augusta, Georgia, and then in Sumter, close to where she was born and grew up.
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.
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.
A portrait of her, unveiled in 1976, hangs in the SC State House.