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Remembering Pioneering Educator & Civil Rights Leader, Mary McLeod Bethune

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March 13, 2021

Her legacy lives on!

Mary Jane McLeod Bethune was born July 10, 1875, on a farm near Maysville, South Carolina, WomensHistory.org reports. She was one of 17 children born to Samuel and Patsy McLeod, former slaves who worked until they saved to buy the farm where the family grew cotton. According to Bethune-Cookman University, Bethune first enrolled in school at age 10, learning how to read and write. She eventually pursued a career as an educator, working in Georgia and South Carolina, where she met and married her husband, Albertus Bethune. 

The two moved to Palatka, Florida, where Bethune worked at the Presbyterian Church while selling insurance. In 1904, she divorced her husband and started the Daytona Beach Literary and Industrial School for Training Negro Girls to take care of her son. Bethune turned her boarding school into a college, merging with the all-male Cookman Institute to create the Bethune-Cookman College

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Bethune was a pioneer in Black education, teaching Black children all over Florida. She became an advocate and activist for educational and civil rights, and served as a member of several organizations, including president of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, founding president of the National Council of Negro Women and vice president of the NAACP, a title she held from 1940 up until her death in 1955.

The women’s rights advocate served as an advisor to five U.S. Presidents, starting as director of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration under President Franklin Roosevelt. She fought to end discrimination and lynching, organizing the conference on the “Problems of the Negro and Negro Youth” in 1937. She was an advocate for promoting Black voters’ exodus away from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party during the Great Depression and was a member of the advisory board that created the Women’s Army Corps. In 1945, Bethune was the only Black woman and woman of color to attend the United Nations’ founding conference. 

Her legacy is extensive and unmatched; she’s been celebrated many times posthumously, including most recently with a statue inside the U.S. Capitol. Below are 10 quotes from Everyday Power from Bethune that are sure to inspire you to action. 

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

“Enter to learn; depart to serve.”

“I leave you love. I leave you hope. I leave you the challenge of developing confidence in one another. I leave you respect for the use of power. I leave you faith. I leave you racial dignity.”

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“Knowledge is the prime need of the hour.”

“There is a place in God’s sun for the youth’ farthest down’ who has the vision, the determination, and the courage to reach it.”

“Next to God, we are indebted to women, first for life itself, and then for making it worth living.”

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“Power, intelligently directed, can lead to more freedom. Unwisely directed, it can be a dreadful, destructive force.”

“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.”

“I plunged into the job of creating something from nothing.”

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“A woman is free if she lives by her own standards and creates her own destiny if she prizes her individuality and puts no boundaries on her hopes for tomorrow.”

Thank you for your work, Ms. Bethune. May you continue to rest in sweet peace. Because of you, we can!

Photo Courtesy of Scurlock Studio Records/Archives Center/National Museum of American History/Smithsonian Institution

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