Mary McLeod Bethune: A Florida Treasure

By J. Stanley Marshall

Editor’s Note:  The following is a reprint of a 2004 article written by JMI founder J. Stanley Marshall for The Tallahassee Democrat. Dr. Marshall served for many years on the Board of Trustees at Bethune-Cookman College and was a long-time admirer of Mary McLeod Bethune. In fact, one day I went to meet with him in his office soon after JMI had moved to its current location. All along the floorboards were various pictures, awards, and memorabilia waiting to be hung on his office walls – including a photograph of Dr. Marshall with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Yet, behind his desk, there was one (and only one) item that Dr. Marshall had taken the time to hang on the wall himself. It was a large photograph of Mary McLeod Bethune; and its prominence spoke volumes about just how much Dr. Marshall drew inspiration from Bethune’s exemplary life.   

The Tallahassee Democrat recently carried a short biographical piece on Mary McLeod Bethune in recognition of Black History Month. Floridians most of all should celebrate her, for it was here that she contributed most generously to education, human rights and progress in race relations.

She founded Bethune-Cookman College exactly 100 years ago and Floridians will have the opportunity this year to recognize this great lady’s accomplishments. She had a keen mind, a rare combination of courage and tolerance, and boundless faith in humanity—traits that one finds too rarely in leaders today, irrespective of race.

In 1930, the president of Rollins College in Winter Park had invited Mrs. Bethune to speak at a student assembly, but was then told by his board that the college had never had a black man or black woman appear on its platform and this was not the time. The president called on Mrs. Bethune in Daytona Beach and told her that he was so ashamed and humiliated that he was going to resign.

But Mrs. Bethune urged him not to do so, telling him that his students needed his leadership more than they needed to hear her speak. Twenty years later, in 1949, she was awarded an honorary degree by Rollins College in what she later described as one of the most rewarding experiences of her life.

Mary Jane McLeod was born in a cabin near Mayesville, S.C., to a father and mother 10 years removed from slavery, the 15th child in a family in which father, mother and children plowed the fields, chopped crabgrass and picked cotton. During visits to the homes of white families with her mother when they delivered the wash, she hoped for nothing as much as to live in a house with windows.

bethune parents

Samuel and Patsy McIntosh McLeod, former slaves, were the parents of Mary McLeod Bethune and 16 other children. Courtesy of Florida Memory.

  Cabin where Mary McLeod Bethune was born near Mayesville, South Carolina. Rachel and Maria, Mary McLeod Bethune’s sisters, are in front of the cabin. Courtesy of Florida Memory.

She also noticed that those folks seemed different, and those differences, she thought, came about because they read books. She prayed that God would help her to learn to read and become educated.

When she was 9 years old, Mary Jane was selected by a black missionary from the Presbyterian Church to attend a new school being built in Mayesville. There she learned to read the Bible. Her prayers were answered yet again when a visiting Quaker lady offered her a scholarship to Scotia Seminary in Concord, N.C. At Scotia, she decided to dedicate her life to Christian missions in Africa.

But God had other plans for Mary Jane, and she was awarded a scholarship to attend Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. She later began teaching in the Haines Institute in Augusta, Ga. Soon after, she met Alfred Bethune, a teacher in a mission school in South Carolina, and they were married in 1898.

But the call to educate her young son and other children was strong, and she heard that a railroad was being built along Florida’s east coast. She moved to Daytona Beach and found the families of black workers living in abject poverty. In 1904, Mrs. Bethune rented a building near the tracks for $11 a month to teach the children of those families. She raised the money by selling sweet potato pies to the people of Daytona Beach.

Thus was founded the Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls. Its first students were five  girls and her 5-year old son, Albert.

God continued to bless Mary McLeod Bethune by bringing her work to the attention of several wealthy families who spent their winters in the area: John D. Rockefeller; industrialist Henry J. Kaiser; and James M. Gamble of Proctor & Gamble. Mrs. Bethune and the Rockefeller family remained close friends throughout her life.

It was only natural that this extraordinary lady would come to the attention of prominent people in Washington. In 1934 she was invited to the White House to counsel President Roosevelt on the National Youth Administration. FDR admired Mrs. Bethune and she became a familiar figure in the White House. The cane that is seen in most of her photographs was one of the president’s, given to her by Mrs. Roosevelt after his death.

 Mary McLeod Bethune and Eleanor Roosevelt on the campus of Bethune-Cookman College in 1952. Courtesy of Florida Memory.

Graduation procession at Bethune-Cookman College, ca. 1946. Courtesy of Florida Memory.

When Harry Truman became president, he appointed her to the National Civil Defense Commission under the direction of Millard Caldwell, a former Florida governor. She was named one of the nation’s 50 outstanding women and was awarded honorary degrees by eight colleges and universities, including Rollins College.

By 1923, the school was merged with the Cookman Institute in Jacksonville, and was named Bethune-Cookman College, which is today one of the nation’s top historic black colleges and universities. Having made so much progress in race relations but still having so far to go, we can only hope for leaders with Mrs. Bethune’s faith and heart and mind.

Perhaps her greatest legacy is her Last Will and Testament, a small book that she wrote before she died in 1955. In it, she spells out her bequests to all of us, but especially to her fellow members of the black community.

“I leave you love. Love builds. It is more beneficial than hate.

“I leave you a thirst for education. Knowledge is the prime need of the hour.

“I leave you racial dignity. I want Negroes to maintain their human dignity at all costs.

“I leave you a desire to live in harmony with your fellow man.

“I leave you finally a responsibility to our young people. Our children must never lose their zeal for building a better world.

“The Freedom Gates are half ajar. We must pry them fully open.”

Could anyone today, black or white, say it better?

Featured Image: Mary McLeod Bethune with students from her Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls, ca. 1905. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.