It may be just about the most beloved “Last Will and Testament” in American history:
“I leave you love.
I leave you hope.
I leave you the challenge of developing confidence in one another.
I leave you a thirst for education.
I leave you a respect for the use of power.
I leave you faith.
I leave you racial dignity.
I leave you a desire to live harmoniously with your fellow men.
I leave you a responsibility to our young people.”
These words, written by educator and activist Mary McLeod Bethune, have inspired generations of young people to aspire to greatness. And greatness is what Dr. Bethune achieved in her 79 years, the result of her complete commitment to and pursuit of educational opportunities for African-Americans.
Born July 10, 1875 near the present-day town of Mayesville, Mary Jane McLeod was the 15th of 17 children and the first member of the family who never knew slavery first-hand. She grew up with a love of learning. That love was fostered by her parents and a devoted teacher, Miss Emma Wilson, founder of Mayesville Institute (then known locally as “Little Tuskegee), who shaped young Mary’s life in ways that would change the world. With the assistance of several benefactors, she completed her studies at Scotia Seminary (now Barber-Scotia College in Concord, NC) and what is now the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago.
Her hope was to travel to Africa as a missionary, but life did not proceed quite according to plan. Told that there was no need for her services, her career took on a different direction. She became a teacher—part of her early career was spent at the Kendall Institute in Sumter—and in a step that was nothing short of unbelievable for a 29-year-old single mother (her marriage to Albertus Bethune had recently ended), she set out on an endeavor to improve learning opportunities for African-American girls. The famous story that she baked sweet potato pies to raise funds for the Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls is indeed true—when the doors opened to five female students (and little Albert Bethune) in 1904, the institution’s assets consisted of a rented building and $1.50, located in what Dr. Bethune called “a hell hole” next door to the city dump.
Today, Dr. Bethune is best remembered as the founder of Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona, Florida. Serving as college president from 1923-42 and 1946-47, Dr. Bethune’s goal was to show the world what educated African-Americans were capable of. The school’s alumni include Henry Lyons (former President of the National Baptist Convention), actors Rodney Chester and Kevin Jamal Woods, US Representative James Bush III, NFL standouts Larry Little, Cy McLairen, Rashean Mathis, and Eric Weems, and baseball’s Mark Woodyard. Another graduate is Lucille O’Neal—you may have heard of her son, Shaquille.
Listing all of Dr. Bethune’s accomplishments would fill a book. But a few of the more notable ones include:
- Served as a special advisor to US Presidents Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry S. Truman.
- Ranked number 10 on journalist Ida Tarbell’s list of America’s Greatest Women (1930).
- Founder of the National Council of Negro Women and the Federal Council on Negro Affairs.
- Appointed by President Truman as a delegate and advisor on interracial relations at the San Francisco Conference, which led to the organization of the United Nations and writing of the United Nations Charter (1945).
- US emissary to the 1949 induction of President William V.S. Tubman of Liberia.
Following her death in 1955, Dr. Bethune continued to accumulate honors and accolades:
- Inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame (1973).
- The first black woman to be honored by a public sculpture (in Lincoln Park) within the District of Columbia (1974).
- In 1985, the US Postal Service issued a stamp in her honor.
- Named one of the “50 Most Important Figures in Black US History” by Ebony magazine in 1989 and 1999.
- In 1991, the International Astronomical Union named the Bethune Patera (a geological feature similar to a crater) on the planet Venus for her.
Earlier this year, renewed interest in the life and legacy of Dr. Bethune came when the state of South Carolina unveiled a license plate in her honor during a ceremony in the atrium of the State House on February 12, 2013. Proceeds from the sale of the license plate go toward the construction and operation of the Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune Museum and Restaurant, maintenance of the Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune Nature Trail, and promotion of tourism in Mayesville, Sumter County, and the State of South Carolina.
However, the legacy that Dr. Bethune would probably be most proud is that today, Bethune-Cookman University is a nationally-ranked institution of higher learning with a current enrollment of more than 3,500 students, offering 36 baccalaureate and two master’s degree programs on an 84-acre campus with 63 buildings.
By any standards, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune’s accomplishments were remarkable. But in order to appreciate—deeply and sincerely—what she made of her life, take a drive to a site two miles from US 401, outside Mayesville and just across the Lee County line (in 1855, this area was part of Sumter District). The landscape consists of woods and farmland, probably not much different than it was about 125 years ago, when a small girl took the first steps of a long journey toward education—for herself, and for students from all over the world.
And from there, immerse yourself in the life story of this fascinating woman. For more information, please call the SC History Trail at (803) 428-3621 or (803) 453-5860.
by Colette Daniels