Honoring the Life and Legacy of Mary McLeod Bethune
Sitting here on a sub-zero morning, with the crystalline snow outside blanketing the earth, I think about the unsung heroes whom history has quietly packed away, their missions and legacies benefiting us all, but their names covered by the sands of time.
I’m honored to shine a light on one of these real-life heroes, Mary McLeod Bethune, an American educator, stateswoman, philanthropist, humanitarian, feminist, and civil rights activist.
Ready? Let’s dive in!
Who Was Mary McLeod Bethune?
The year was 1875 — the year that the first newspaper cartoon strip ran in the Daily Graphic, New York’s first illustrated newspaper; the year that the anti-slavery society formed in New York; and the year that my great-great-grandfather, a Cherokee Indian Chief, was born in Western North Carolina. That pivotal year on July 10th, Mary McLeod Bethune was born.
Bethune spent her childhood in a small log cabin near Mayesville, South Carolina, on a rice and cotton farm (a mere 200 miles from my childhood home in N.C.). She was the fifteenth of seventeen children born to former slaves. Most of her siblings had been born into slavery.
At the age of four, Bethune taught herself to read with no instruction, and although she started working in the fields with her family at the age of five, she was inspired to learn more. Early on, she viewed education as a form of freedom in an unjust world. Her parents enrolled her in the local one-room schoolhouse and Mary walked about eight miles each day in pursuit of education and enlightenment. That was the crucial spark that would enliven her life-long love for education.
She continued to learn and graduated from the Scotia Seminary for Girls in 1893. After that, Bethune worked as an educator, believing that education provided the key to racial advancement.
During her early career, Bethune was determined to start a school for girls and moved to Daytona, Florida, for increased economic opportunities. This was where she founded the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute in 1904, and which would later become Bethune-Cookman College, one of the few places that African American students could pursue a college degree at the time.
Later in life, she became involved in government service, lending her expertise to several presidents. President Calvin Coolidge invited her to participate in a conference on child welfare. And for President Herbert Hoover, she served on the Commission on Home Building and Home Ownership and was appointed to a committee on child health.
But her most significant roles in public service came from President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1935, Bethune became a special advisor to President Roosevelt on minority affairs. That same year, she also started up her own civil rights organization, the National Council of Negro Women. Bethune created this organization to represent numerous groups working on critical issues for African American women.
She received another appointment from President Roosevelt the following year. In 1936, she became the director of the Division of Negro Affairs in the National Youth Administration. One of her main concerns in this position was helping young people find job opportunities. In addition to her official role in the Roosevelt administration, Bethune became a trusted friend and adviser to both the president and his wife Eleanor Roosevelt.
To honor her life and legacy, here are four of Bethune’s trailblazing quotes:
On the inherent worth of the soul:
”Invest in the human soul. Who knows? It might be a diamond in the rough.”
There is an inherent dignity in the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human species. This is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace on our planet.
We all matter, and our souls matter — equally. Every person has come into this world with a purpose, every person’s life has meaning, and if we invest in the human soul, wonderful things emerge from this insistence in love, forgiveness, and our capacity to continually lift each other up.
On progress and personal power:
“The progress of the world will call for the best that all of us have to give.”
We have the power — the power to create happiness. And the world calls for us to use this inherent power to make life free and beautiful, giving the best that we have to ourselves first, and then to others.
Living, dying, breathing, loving; these are the processes of the world, and when we give the best that we have, the gates of freedom swing open for ourselves and for our brothers and sisters. Let’s help each other by shining our luminosity into the world, to enliven a more peaceful future. I’m in — are you?
On the nature of forgiveness:
“Forgiving is not about forgetting; it’s letting go of the hurt.”
Forgiveness is freedom. It releases us from the hurts of the past and from the ruminations of the future to allow us to be here, right now, in a peaceful state.
The concept of mercy shown towards someone or some situation also allows us to show mercy toward ourselves by choosing to release the pain of a betrayal, misunderstanding, or injustice so we can move forward healthier and more whole. Without forgiveness, there can be no deep, abiding love for ourselves nor others. Choose to forgive.
“Education is the great American adventure, the world’s most colossal democratic experiment.”
Education is freedom, and knowledge is indeed power, a liberation from the confines of our minds and the mistakes of the past. When we know more, we can do more.
Education is essential to democracy because it levels the playing field. And although democracy is going through a revolution right now, both needed and painful, education is still the great equalizer in a diverse nation where anything is possible.
Bethune is remembered for her work to advance the rights of both African Americans and women. Before her death, on May 18, 1955, in Daytona, Florida, she penned “My Last Will and Testament,” which served as a reflection on her own life and legacy. Among her list of spiritual bequests, she wrote, “I leave you a thirst for education. Knowledge is the prime need of the hour.” She closed with, “If I have a legacy to leave my people, it is my philosophy of living and serving.”
These are only a few of Mary’s achievements. To learn more about her aspirational life, visit Mary McLeod Bethune or watch:
With love and gratitude,
A Letter of Gratitude to My Readers
From the depths of my soul to the expansiveness of your heart, thank you
The Art of Stillness and the Key to a Peaceful Mind: Wisdom from Eckhart Tolle
The only place in which you can experience the flow of life is in the now.