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Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955)
“We have a powerful potential in our youth, and we must have the courage to change old ideas and practices so that we may direct their power toward good ends”
Mary McLeod Bethune believed that the power and potential lie in the youth and their courage to change the world. The fact that she was a daughter of former slaves, never stopped her from reaching her full potential and becoming one of the most important black educators, activists, and civil and women’s rights leaders of the 20th century.
Bethune excelled not in one but in all roles she took during her 60 years of public service. No wonder she was perceived as one of the greatest individuals in the US, and a person before her time. She knew that education has the power to make a difference, and revive the world, so she used it to achieve racial and gender equality.
She perceived education as one of the few ways for African American people, especially women, to break the chains of poverty and dependence on racist systems. In a time when African Americans were denied voting rights and economic prospects, she founded the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls with nothing but $1.50, a vision, and faith in God. Here open mind, resilience, and entrepreneurial skills were crucial for the schools’ success. Bethune was not just an educator, she was a writer, real estate owner, business investor, political activist, president’s advisor, and a preserver of historical records about the African American women’s valuable and diverse contributions to American culture.
Mary McLeod Bethune was born on July 10, 1875, in Mayesville, South Carolina, and died on May 18, 1955, in Daytona Beach, Florida. She was a renowned American educator, politically active in African American affairs, and the US president’s special adviser on minority issues.
Mary McLeod Bethune received her formal education from Scotia Seminary in Concord and the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. She started her career as a teacher in small Southern schools. In 1904 she moved to Florida, where she established her school known as the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls to help the large African American population that lived there. Based solely on her educational ideas and with no tangible assets, she worked day and night to solicit help and donations. Nothing could stop her determination and creative mind, so she carved “pencils” from charred wood, produced ink from elderberries, and mattresses from moss-filled corn bags. From 6 students to 250 in less than two years, her school thrived and grew into a serious educational institution. But she didn’t stop there, seeing the health discrepancies and lack of medical treatment available to African Americans she founded the only school of its kind, the Mary McLeod Hospital and Training School for Nurses. The school helped African American women and was later on merged with the Cookman Institute for Men, to form the Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach. Mary McLeod Bethune was college president until 1942 and again from 1946 to 1947. Under her guidance, the college was accredited and reached over 1,000 students. Bethune was appointed an administrative assistant for Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration and a minority affair advisor by President Roosevelt.
She dedicated her life to education and improving racial relations. Her legacy lives to this day and she will always be remembered through her impact on education and society.
Mary McLeod Bethune had many educational ideas and theories that she used to provide educational opportunities for African American women. She is probably most recognized for her educational theory of teaching to the “whole” student. She believed that education should be based on the training of three elements: the student’s head (thinking), hand (working), and heart (having faith). Bethune was fully aware of the importance of a rounded education and believed in learning, dignity, the sophistication of labor, and the accomplishment of assigned tasks. Mary McLeod Bethune’s school was based on her educational theories and focused on:
- Producing socially responsible students;
- Supporting equal society;
- Breaking down racial and gender barriers;
- Student’s intellectual training to help them promote the growth and development of their race;
- Encouraging students to use their education and creativity to eliminate the walls of race;
- Education as an essential “toolbox” for her students for the time “they leave the school life and enter Life’s school”;
- Using practical principles from subjects like math, history, and economics, to help students fight gender norms and develop agreeable, impartial atmospheres both at home and in society;
- Challenging traditional barriers;
Even though Bethune’s educational approach was targeting a change on an individual level, especially in African American women’s households, she also tried to initiate social change through collective social action.
Mary McLeod Bethune’s impact on education is indisputable. Her educational theories and methods show her dedication to making a difference and creating socially responsible students by combining education with social influence. Bethune’s ideas and educational techniques can easily be used today in a modern school setting. Let’s reflect on her teaching approach and its impact:
- She taught her students both reading and writing, and crafts and homemaking. Her idea was to teach them how to earn a living;
- The curriculum at her school was balanced between academic knowledge (reading, writing, and math), and homemaking classes (cooking and sewing). Her goal was to equip them with the necessary skills to get a job, or if their goal was college, to prepare them for the next step;
- She taught her students to praise any job they did, by doing it well, because according to her belief there was no lowly labor, only lowly self-esteem;
- Besides literacy, she taught her students the basics of farming, making decent homes, hygiene and health;
- Bethune prepared her students for living and making a living;
- She taught her students’ hand skills (as necessary tools for a modern living), alongside English and arithmetic;
- In her opinion there was no such thing as Black education, only education;
- She prepared her students to bravely embrace life, not because they are Black, but because they are human;
- Bethune’s school reflected her beliefs about the role of women in society, ethics, and self-reliance. Therefore, she trained her students’ heads to think, hands to work, and hearts to believe;
- Bethune saw her students’ potential and encouraged and supported the ones who wanted a higher education. She thought her students should go as far as their ambitions and talents can take them;
- Bethune’s school’s curriculum stressed success and disagreed with dependency and degradation;
- She gave her students a chance to emerge from social and political invisibility that kept them exploited;
- She always gave her students a chance to prove their worth;
- She improved her students’ chances in every field, helping them to fight for better working conditions, higher living standards, civil rights, and educational opportunities;
- The educational concept of her school was to highlight domestic, vocational, and religious training;
- Bethune taught her students that the work of the mind controls the work of the hands and heart and that their unison fulfills the purpose of education;
- She believed that anyone with a passion for teaching should teach;
- The methods of teaching in her school were by example, by training, and by self-actualization.
Bethune’s teaching approach was unique and advanced. The decades of service, education, and activism have made a huge impact. Teachers of today can easily follow her example of “making a way out of no way”. She left her students and the generations to come a legacy of love, hope, faith, respect, and thirst for education. Bethune left an important legacy and responsibility to teachers to take care of the young and be there for them every step of the way.
Mary McLeod Bethune died on May 18, 1955, but her work and dedication to education live on. To honor her passion and impact on education and society, a statue was built in her honor (a small token of appreciation), and displayed in the National Statuary Hall in Washington, DC Florida, on July 13, 2022. She made history by being the first Black woman nominated to represent the state of Florida at the U.S. Capitol. Every symbol on the statue captures her essence, and everything she believed in:
- The black rose (a rose with a particular dark hue was her favorite- she referred to her students as her “black roses”) and facial expression (resolute yet gentle demeanor) symbolize her belief that “loving thy neighbor” means interracial, inter-religious, and universal brotherhood;
- The stack of books on the sculpture portrays Bethune’s hunger for knowledge, her passion for education, and her dedication to passing on that knowledge to the youth. Besides the books she is depicted with a graduation cap and gown (once a teacher, always a teacher), a cane, and a gentle smile.
- The statue’s marble is engraved with one of her many quotes capturing her entire being (head, heart, and soul): “Invest in the human soul, who knows, it may be a diamond in the rough.”