In 1904, with only $1.50 to her name, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, founded the Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls (now, Bethune-Cookman University).

Throughout her life, Dr. Bethune sought to uplift and to buttress the lives of Black Americans through education, organizations, politics, and strong leadership. Her endeavors were recognized by those she served, members of the press, presidents of the United States, a first lady of the United States, and countless others impacted by her works.

Portrait of Mary McLeod Bethune

Mary McLeod Bethune, Daytona Beach, Florida, ca. 1915. Photograph by W. L. Coursen.

Courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

“Faith is the first factor in a life devoted to service. Without it, nothing is possible. With it, nothing is impossible.”

—Mary McLeod Bethune, Ebony magazine, “My Last Will and Testament” by Mary McLeod Bethune, 1955

“Thou God, Seest Me”

To the Black press, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune was often referred to as the ”First Lady of Negro America.” She was nationally recognized for her numerous efforts to enhance the circumstances of Black Americans. As the press covered her life and achievements, Dr. Bethune strategically used that same line of communication to directly address her readership. In Negro Digest, a periodical by the Johnson Publishing Company, she wrote an essay, “Thou God, Seest Me,” that was published in the March 1943 issue. Over a two-page spread, she wrote, “If I were a youth again, I think, as far as I know myself, I would cling to the ideas and ideals that have been mine since childhood.”

Cover of Negro Digest

Negro Digest vol. 1 no. 5, March 1943. This issue features Bethune’s essay “Thou God, Seest Me.”

© Ebony Media Group LLC.

While steadfast in her ideas spurred during childhood, she remarks on the one thing she would prefer differently—“I would like to find, if possible, a more democratic and a more just world in which to put them into execution.” Nearly half-way through the essay, she reveals to the reader that the title of the essay was derived from a Biblical scripture learned in childhood. It impressed upon her mind the omniscience of God, and Him as “an everlasting companion.” As the essay progresses, Dr. Bethune revisits the motif, ‘If I were a youth again,’ and reflects on the experiences that shaped her life up until that moment. By the conclusion, she declares, despite her mistakes and imperfections, “If I had my life to live over again, I should have my same desires.”

Early Life

Mary Jane McLeod was born on July 10, 1875, in Mayesville, South Carolina, during the era of Reconstruction. She was the fifteenth of Samuel and Patsy (McIntosh) McLeod’s seventeen children. Her formal education included the Trinity Presbyterian Mission School in Mayesville (1882–86), a school for Black children; Scotia Seminary (now, Barber Scotia College) in Concord, North Carolina (1887–94), a boarding school for Black girls; and The Bible Institute for Home and Foreign Missions under the auspice of the Chicago Evangelization Society (now, Moody Bible Institute) in Chicago, Illinois (1894–95), where she was the singular Black student.

After completing her studies, she taught at the Mayesville Mission School; Haines Institute in Augusta, Georgia; and Kendall Institute in Sumter, South Carolina, before meeting and marrying fellow teacher, Albertus Bethune, in 1898. The following year, she gave birth to their only child, Albert McLeod Bethune. From 1899 until 1903, Mary McLeod Bethune established and worked at the Palatka Mission School (Palatka, Florida). In 1904, at 29-years old, she established her own school, the Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls. The school was created specifically for the purpose of educating the Black American girls of Daytona Beach. This commenced the fulfilment of her dream of establishing an educational institution.

Knowledge is the prime need of the hour. Mary McLeod Bethune, 1955 Ebony magazine, “My Last Will and Testament” by Mary McLeod Bethune
Mary McLeod Bethune

Mary McLeod Bethune, Daytona Beach, ca. 1904. 

Courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

Building a School, Brick-by-Brick

With the move to Daytona Beach, Florida, Bethune chose a five-room cottage on Oak Street to rent for $11 per month. This structure would provide a home for her family and an instructional facility for her pupils, who paid a weekly tuition of fifty cents. Anna, Celeste, Lena, Lucille, and Ruth, plus her five-year-old son, Albert, formed the inaugural class of the school. The school relocated to its current location on Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune Boulevard (formerly, Second Avenue) in 1907. The land purchased for the school was known as ”Hells Hole”—a reference to its former purpose as a dump site for the city. The cost of the land was $250.


Building brick from Bethune-Cookman University's White Hall, ca. 1916.

Gift of Bethune-Cookman University
Mary McLeod Bethune in front of a building.

Daytona Beach, Florida. Bethune-Cookman College. Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune leaving White Hall, Jan. 1943. Photograph by Gordon Parks.

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
Mary McLeod Bethune with a line of girls.

Mary McLeod Bethune with a Line of Girls from the School, 1905.

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

The first structure to be built upon this repurposed land was Faith Hall. It was erected in 1907, the same year as the move. Nine years later, White Hall was constructed and served as an administrative building. It included an auditorium, classrooms, and offices. The red clay-colored brick (above), covered in mortar, was once a part of the physical structure of White Hall. The Georgian Revival style brick hall, with a white-pillared portico, was constructed after the death of Thomas H. White (1838–1914), the namesake of the hall. White, of Cleveland, Ohio, was president of the White Sewing Machine Company, and was one of the school’s earliest benefactors. The company produced sewing machines, and later, the White Steamer automobiles.

I longed to do something for my race, especially for the girls and women; to help bring order out of the chaos we see around us. I was not familiar with the work of Hampton and Tuskegee except in a general way. I believed that my people’s starting point upward must be religion and industry. Hence the planting of this institution. This work grew out of my own soul. The seed was planted in my heart when I was in darkness myself. Whatever I have accomplished has been in answer to prayer.

Mary McLeod Bethune
“The Bethune School” by Helen W. Ledlow, in The Southern Woman, 1912

Lifting As We Climb

The National Association of Colored Women (NACW) was incorporated in 1896 in Washington, DC. The founding members included Frances E.W. Harper, Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin, and Mary Church Terrell, the association’s first president. The organization was established with the intention of addressing social matters such as lynching, education, suffrage, care for children and the elderly, job readiness, fair wages, and more. NACW’s motto, “Lifting As We Climb,” was implemented in the work and advocacy of their association. It was a call-to-action embraced by their affiliated organizations, including the Oklahoma Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, as seen with their purple banner made of silk with gold-lettering.

Banner with motto of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs

Banner with motto of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs, ca. 1924. Use by the Oklahoma Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs.

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

The NACW was incorporated in 1904, and with that formality came a name change. The organization became the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (NACWC). Twenty years later, Mary McLeod Bethune was installed as the NACWC’s eighth president and served from 1924 until 1928. Prior to her appointment with the NACWC, Bethune served as the president of the Florida Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs and president of the Southeastern Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs.

In 1935, Bethune founded the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) in order to create a national coalition of women’s associations, organizations, and groups. In an effort to unify the voices of the organizations, 29 groups gathered in Harlem to attend the first meeting. Bethune served as president from 1935 until 1949. After her passing in 1955, she was memorialized in the NCNW’s 1957 conference program. The program belonged to member and attendee, Frances M. Albrier, of the San Francisco chapter of the NCNW. The program included “A Tribute to Mary McLeod Bethune and Women Pioneers” and was presented by a representative of the archives and museum department, it also included a printed photographic memorial to Mary McLeod Bethune.

Page from a program with a portrait of Bethune.

Program from the 1957 National Council of Negro Women annual convention.

Frances Albrier Collection

Bethune’s Federal Work: The New Deal and the Black Cabinet

Dr. Bethune’s institutional work also included political appointments and work within the federal government. In the 1976 edition of Delegate magazine, an article reflected on the work of Black Americans with former U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal federal programs. The article, “Blacks In and Under the Roosevelt Administration,” discusses Bethune’s frequent visits with former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt at the White House, Bethune’s work with the National Youth Administration (NYA) as the head of the Division of Negro Affairs and her simultaneous fight to receive the same compensation as the other division leaders, and Bethune’s role with the “Black Cabinet” during the years of FDR’s New Deal. Bethune is featured in two photographs—one alongside Eleanor (below), and the other with fellow members of the “Black Cabinet,” which was also known as the “Black Brain Trust” and the “Federal Council of Negro Affairs.”

Magazine page with an image of Bethune and Eleanor Roosevelt

Photograph of Dr. Bethune and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt published in Delegate magazine, 1976. Published by MelPat Associates.

Gift of Anne B. Patrick and the family of Hilda E. Stokely

An Enduring Legacy

Dr. Bethune’s legacy is still palpable today. Her decades of service, education, and uplift has left an indisputable legacy of “making a way out of no way” and “lifting as she climbed.” From Bethune-Cookman University, the historically Black university she established in Florida, to her founding of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), to her work in the federal government, Bethune has left a lasting heritage of goodwill and courage to inspire the next generation.

A tin collection box for the Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial Fund with an image of Bethune on the front.

Tin can, “Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial Fund – National Council of Negro Women"

On loan from the Dorothy Irene Height Education Foundation

Around 1960, the NCNW commenced a fundraising campaign with the intent to erect a statue of Bethune. The donation tin for the “Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial Fund” was used to amass the funds needed for the memorial. The sepia-toned, pocket-size metallic box, measuring 4½ by 3¼ by 1½ inches, with its lid outfitted with a slot for coin deposits, features an image of Bethune on the front and a quote by Bethune on the side:

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, finally, a responsibility to our young people.

In 1974, the vision of the NCNW was realized. Nearly two decades after her death, a statue bearing her image was unveiled in Lincoln Park in memory of both Bethune and the NCNW. The moment of unveiling was captured by photographer Milton Williams, who climbed the scaffolding to capture the greatness of a monumental woman and advocate, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune.

A crowd in front of a statue unveiling.

Unveiling of the Mary McLeod Bethune statue in Washington, DC’s Lincoln Park, 1974. Photograph by Milton Williams.

Gift of Milton Williams Archives, © Milton Williams
Look at me. I am Black. I am beautiful. Mary McLeod Bethune

On July 13, 2022, a marble statue created by artist and master sculptor, Nilda Comas, was installed in Statuary Hall establishing Dr. Bethune as the first Black American to represent a state in the National Statuary Hall Collection. Although several Black Americans, such as Frederick Douglass, Rosa Parks, and Sojourner Truth, are featured in statues, paintings, and murals throughout the U.S. Capitol Building, a new statue of Dr. Bethune representing the state of Florida in Statuary Hall is notable. The statue and base, standing 11 feet tall, was carved from an 11.5-ton block of statuario marble. The marble was excavated from famed Italian sculptor Michelangelo’s cave in Tuscany. The marble statue of Dr. Bethune, draped in cap and gown, holds a black rose. To Dr. Bethune, the black rose was both a symbol of unity and a moniker ascribed to her beloved pupils of Bethune-Cookman University.

Browse Objects in the NMAAHC Collection Relating to Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune

Written by Vanessa Moorer, PhD, Curatorial Assistant
Published on July 15, 2022

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