Bethune: Relentless Hope

Mary McLeod Bethune was born on July 10, 1875 in Mayesville, South Carolina to parents who were enslaved, the fifteenth of seventeen children born to Sam and Patsy McLeod. Her mother was a washer of white people’s clothes.  Some days, she would accompany her mother to deliver the clothes; she saw books around their homes, and knew from that very moment she wanted to learn. She recognized that the difference between white people and her own was not truly racial, but educational.

As a child, Bethune walked several miles each day to attend a one-room Black schoolhouse. She was the only child to go to school, but was eager to share her knowledge with her family. Later, Bethune attended the Dwight L. Moody Institute in Chicago; she initially wanted to become a missionary to Africa, but was told that Black missionaries were not needed there. Nevertheless, she had a passion to teach. Educating African Americans became her primary goal, and nothing was going to stop her. Teaching children influenced her thoughts, her ideas, and her entire being.

In 1896, Bethune worked as a teacher in Augusta, Georgia, with a school that was founded by activist and educator Lucy Craft Laney. Laney’s school—the Haines Normal and Industrial Institute (“normal schools” were institutions that primarily trained teachers)—taught Christian missionaries, with an emphasis on character and practical education for girls. Bethune adopted much of Laney’s educational philosophy, and in particular her emphasis on educating girls and women to improve the conditions of black people. As Bethune once explained, “I believe that the greatest hope for the development of my race lies in training our women thoroughly and practically. Educating women raises the lives of families as a whole.” After a year at Haines, she was transferred by the Presbyterian mission she worked for to the Kindell Institute in South Carolina. There she met her husband, Albertus Bethune, whom she married in 1898; they had a son (Albert McLeod Bethune) the next year.

Bethune in 1949, photographed by Carl van Vechten

In 1899, the family moved to Florida, where she ran a Presbyterian mission school and aided in prison outreach. After her husband’s death of tuberculosis in 1918, Bethune began pursuing her dream of starting her own school. With only $1.50 to her name, she founded the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls: the school started with five students, but grew over the next few years to almost three hundred. She was quite resourceful.  The school bordered a dump, where she found discarded boxes, crates, old furniture, and anything else she could use to outfit her school.  She solicited the help of her students, parents, and church members to raise money for supplies for the school. The Black church played a major part in raising funds for equipment; supporters from the church cooked and sold food to the community to raise money for the school.

Her curriculum was meticulous. The girls rose at 5:30 am for Bible study. Classes included standard subjects like reading and writing, mathematics, science, and foreign languages, along with millinery (women’s hatmaking), home economics, and self-reliance classes. The students ended their day at 9:00 pm.

If we accept and acquiesce in the face of discrimination, we accept the responsibility ourselves and allow those responsible to salve their conscience by believing that they have our acceptance and concurrence. We should, therefore, protest openly everything … that smacks of discrimination or slander.

Mary McLeod Bethune

Bethune’s passion for educating the children in her community was contagious, and won the hearts of many, despite the Jim Crow policies and attitudes of the time. She valued the advice of Booker T. Washington about collaborating with and gaining the support of white benefactors, whom she invited to sit on her board of trustees. Sharing her vision enabled others to play a vital role in her school. She had a diverse group of people in her life: her funders included James Gamble (of Procter and Gamble), Thomas L. White (of White Sewing Machines), John D. Rockefeller, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and a host of others who believed in her vision.

In 1931, Bethune’s school merged with the Cookman Institute for Men; the combined institute became Bethune-Cookman College. She led the college as its president, remaining in that position until 1942. The University continues to excellently educate students today. Mary went on to fulfill other dreams such as forming the Mary McLeod Bethune Hospital, the United Negro College Fund, and the National Council of Colored Women. She also served on the cabinet of Franklin Roosevelt and was an advisor to many other presidents. Many schools today are named in her honor.  

Speaking personally for a moment, as an educator, I especially like to tell the good stories about my race. Even sharing the bad and the ugly has its benefits, but highlighting the good inspires others to do good works, like Mary McLeod Bethune did. I have always felt that it is the parent’s responsibility to see that their children know about other people’s cultures and contributions to society. She said many things that still ring true, but one quote speaks for me today: “Not only the Black child but children of all races should read and know of the achievements, accomplishments, and deeds of the Black race. Peace and brotherhood are based on a common understanding of the contributions and cultures of all races and creeds.” 

Bethune was a remarkable woman, and is a national role model for everyone who has a dream and wants to accomplish magnificent deeds for others. She believed that faith in God, faith in oneself, and a desire to serve are essential for dreams to come true.

A long-time member of CLT’s Board of Academic Advisors, Joyce Burges is a veteran of thirty years as a homeschooling mother, and serves on the school board in her hometown. Along with her husband Eric, she founded the National Black Home Educators organization, which has been empowering parents for twenty years. Joyce is a national speaker on education and family matters, and has written three books: Teach Me How to Teach my Child, A Gentlewoman’s Guide to Greatness, and A Home Educator’s Guide to Greatness. She has been featured in many periodicals and news media, including Ebony, Essence, The Crisis Magazine, The New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, BET News, and other national and local outlets. She recently created a mentoring program for girls and young women, “Princess to Queen,” using the biblical Esther as a role model to teach them the behaviors of royalty. Joyce enjoys traveling, singing, cooking, gardening, and spending time with her husband, five children, ten grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. Reach out to Joyce at contact@nbhe.net or visit www.joycemburges.com to learn more.


Every week, we publish a profile of one of the figures from the CLT author bank. For an introduction to classic authors, see our guest post from Keith Nix, founder of the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.

If you enjoyed this post, take a look at some of our other content here at the Journal, like these profiles of Virgil and Thomas Jefferson or these “Great Conversation” pieces on the idea of the mind and the virtue of temperance. And be sure to check out our weekly podcast on education and culture, hosted by our CEO and founder, Jeremy Tate.

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