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The daughter of former slaves, Mary McLeod Bethune was a revolutionary educator, civil rights activist, presidential advisor, and leader. In this video, we will take a brief look at her life and her lasting impact on American education.

Meet Mary McLeod Bethune

Mary McLeod Bethune was born just ten years after the American Civil War in 1875. Born in Mayesville, South Carolina, Bethune was the daughter and fifteenth child of two former slaves. Needless to say, her beginnings were humble.

She spent most of her youth in the cotton fields, performing strenuous physical labor alongside her parents and her brothers and sisters. Soon, though, Bethune would find her passion.At age ten, she was the only one of her siblings that was able to begin school in a local one-room schoolhouse, Trinity Presbyterian Mission School. It is here where she first learned to read and first fell in love with education. She would continue her education in an effort to become a missionary. She attended Scotia Seminary as well as Moody Bible Institute. However, Bethune never went into the mission field.

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She undertook a whole new challenge by becoming a teacher.Eventually, Bethune wanted not only to teach but to operate her own school. She pursued this dream, and she was eventually successful. In 1904, she was able to open a school for girls located in Daytona, Florida. While beginnings were humble, the school would eventually flourish and transform.

The school began with an elementary focus but soon developed into an innovative institution of higher education for African-American students. In the 1920s, the school was merged with the all-boys Cookman Institute for Men, thus becoming the Bethune-Cookman College. Bethune-Cookman College was an innovative institution of higher education for people of color and still operates today as Bethune-Cookman University.

A Warrior for Equality

While Bethune identified herself as an educator, she was really so much more.

She was an advocate and a warrior for civil rights and equality. While she would remain a leader at the school she helped found, she also devoted herself to other areas in order to extend her impact. She would go on to serve in a number of capacities in a number of organizations.

In 1924, Bethune became the president of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, and in 1935, she would found the National Council of Negro Women. She served on the Federal Council on Negro Affairs and worked with the National Youth Administration. Her reach was quite broad and impressive.Bethune was such an influential person that she became a presidential advisor.

In fact, she was the first African-American woman to be recognized as an advisor. She assisted presidents Coolidge, Hoover, F.D. Roosevelt, and Truman. President Roosevelt appointed Bethune as a special advisor on minority affairs, where her work was invaluable and much needed. President Truman honored her by appointing her to the founding conference of the United Nations in 1945. In true trailblazing fashion, Bethune was the only black female delegate from any country attending the conference.

How Bethune Shaped Education

Bethune is such an accomplished woman and true trailblazer that pinpointing her exact influence on education is difficult. The story of public education in the United States is a story of a struggle for equality. Bethune met this struggle head on in a way that few before her were able to accomplish. She devoted her life to fighting for the rights of women and people of color. Education was the avenue she used to pursue this struggle.

Keep in mind, before the end of the Civil War, just ten years before Bethune was born, it was illegal for a person of color to learn to read in the American South. While all of the individual achievements under Bethune are certainly important and influential, it is the sum of her work and her story that has most impacted education today. Individuals, such as Bethune, paved the way for the civil rights movement, the integration of schools, and the movement for gender equality. While Bethune was a teacher, she was clearly so much more, and the world is a much better place because of her.

Lesson Summary

Mary McLeod Bethune was a trendsetting woman of color in the United States.

She was born to two former slaves, grew up in rural South Carolina, and once she was able to begin attending school at the age of ten, she quickly set out on making a mark on the world. She founded what would become known as Bethune-Cookman College, was a presidential advisor, and served for numerous organizations devoted to equality for minorities.She was an advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt by serving as a special advisor on minority affairs. President Truman appointed her to attend the first conference of the United Nations, making her the only black female to attend from any nation.

Bethune fought and paved the way for civil rights and equality in education in the United States, and her legacy lives on long past her.

Learning Outcomes

You should have the ability to do the following after watching this video lesson:

  • Summarize Mary McLeod Bethune’s beginnings and upbringing
  • Describe Bethune’s role in founding Bethune-Cookman College
  • Identify important contributions Bethune made as a presidential advisor
  • Explain some of Bethune’s most important roles and actions that led her to become so influential in shaping American education
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