Mary McLeod Bethune
b. 1875, Mayesville, South Carolina; d. 1955, Daytona Beach, Florida
The daughter of former slaves, Mary McLeod Bethune combined a feminist perspective and civil rights activism to combat systemic racism and expand possibilities for black women in public leadership roles. In 1894, with hopes of becoming a missionary in Africa, she enrolled at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago; church officials, however, decided there was no room on the black continent for a black missionary. Committed to education as the key to racial advancement, she founded the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls in Daytona, Florida, in 1904; under her tenacious leadership, the school became Bethune-Cookman College in 1929. In the early 1920s, she launched a voter registration drive, offering night courses to African Americans to help them pass the literacy test; she became a local celebrity when she refused to capitulate to Klan intimidation. Meanwhile, in 1924, she assumed presidency of the National Association of Colored Women and in 1935 founded the National Council of Negro Women. Bethune’s work brought her to national prominence in the New Deal administration, where she served on the advisory committee of the National Youth Administration (1936–43) and, in 1939, was appointed director of the Division of Negro Affairs. In myriad ways, Bethune worked to place African Americans in positions with decision-making power over policy and funding. She organized the “black cabinet” and, through a close alliance with Eleanor Roosevelt, expanded employment opportunies for black men and women within New Deal agencies. During World War II, she campaigned for desegregation of the armed forces. After half a century of exemplary public service, Bethune retired in 1949.