May McLeod Bethune was born July 10, 1875 in Maysville, S. Carolina the child of slaves. As a child she spent her time in the cotton fields yet yearned for education so deeply she walked nearly 10 miles each day to school.
Her hard work and perseverance paid off with scholarships earned to N. Carolina's Scotia Seminary and Chicago's Moody Bible School.
Mary's deepest desire was to be a missionary to Africa. But countless applications for the African mission field were rejected. She knew she had found her true calling however, when she began to teach in rural schools. She had found her mission field closer to home.
In 1904 she heard there was an influx of black workers and their families to Daytona Beach, FL to work on the railroads. She saw another mission field and went to Daytona beach to set up a school. She begged and borrowed for supplies, collected funds at churches and started her school with about 6 pupils. In two years time her school had grown to 250 students.
Bethune and her teachers worked in nearby fields to raise produce to support the school and the students. She also sold ice cream and sweet-potato pie to construction workers. In this fashion she raised the money to buy a plot of land so she could build her own school and stop renting a place to conduct classes.
Bethune used the fact that many rich folks vacationed in the Daytona Beach area to plead the case for her school. One of her most successful converts was John D. Rockefeller who became a patron of the school.
Bethune was not satisfied with creating just an educational institution. She was outraged there was no place in Florida for Blacks to receive medical treatment so she built one. Eventually the city took over the hospital.
In 1922 the educational institution she had built combined with a Florida men's school of black higher education and became Bethune-Cookman College.
Bethune devoted as much energy to voter registration as she did to her other educational endeavors. She was elected to the board of the National Urban League in 1924 and elected president of the National Association of Colored Women. Her rising popularity enabled Bethune to strike up a friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt. This in turn led to her meeting the president in 1934 and eventually being named to Roosevelt's National Youth Administration and named director of the Division of Negro Affairs. She also got started a fund for Negro college students which led to the creation of the National Youth Administration's Civilian Pilot Training Program which was the precursor of the Tuskegee Airmen.
In addition to the Roosevelt administration Mary served three other presidents in her life. She had been asked by President Coolidge to take part in conference on child care. President Hoover asked her to sit on a couple of commissions and in 1951, she undertook a trip to Africa at the behest of President Truman.
Bethune was not satisfied with gaining advantage and acceptance for herself. She used her health problems to open the way for black doctors to gain acceptance by refusing to be treating by anyone other than black doctors. Because of her high profile with the White House, hospitals were reluctant to deny the request of a powerful friend of the president and first lady.
During WWII, Bethune was named Special Assistant to the Secretary of War. She pioneered the acceptance of black women into the service.
At the age of 65, Bethune resigned as president of the school she had started and following an illness while at the founding conference of the United Nations retired to Daytona Beach where she took her daily walks until her death on May 18, 1955.
photo courtesy: National Archives