On July 10, 1875, Mary McLeod Bethune was born in Mayesville, South Carolina, the daughter of former slaves. Fortunate in that she was able to gain a formal education, Bethune had hopes of becoming a missionary in Africa, but, as she put it, "Africans in America needed Christ and school just as much as Negroes in Africa. . . . My life work lay not in Africa but in my own country."
She first taught school in Georgia and later in South Carolina, Florida and Illinois, devoting her life to ensuring the right to education and freedom from discrimination for black Americans. Bethune believed that through education, blacks could begin to earn a living in a country that still opposed racial equality. Bethune worked tirelessly until her death and would not rest while there was "a single Negro boy or girl without a chance to prove his worth."
As a young teacher in Chicago, she visited prisoners in jail, giving them inspiration through song and offering them a small chance at education. She worked at the Pacific Garden Mission, serving lunch to the homeless, and counseled the residents of Chicago's slums. In Florida, she organized a Sunday school program and sang to prisoners. Bethune went wherever she could, to speak to, to sing to, to offer assistance to, to educate, Black Americans.
In 1904, she opened the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls; the first class had just five girls, but later accepted boys as well. Tuition was 50 cents a week, but Mary McLeod Bethune never refused to educate a child whose parents could not afford the payment. She worked tirelessly not only to maintain the school, but she also fought the segregation and inequality facing blacks. In those days, many people objected to education for Blacks, but Bethune's passion and dedication silenced nearly all her critics of both races. She encouraged people to "Invest in the human soul. Who knows, it might be a diamond in the rough."
Having immense faith in God and believing that nothing was impossible, Bethune also opened a high school and a hospital for blacks. She remained president of the school for more than 40 years. In 1923, she oversaw the school's merger with the Cookman Institute, thereby forming the Bethune-Cookman College.
With her school a success, Bethune became increasingly involved in political issues. It was through her discussions with Vice President Thomas Marshall that the Red Cross decided to integrate, and blacks were allowed to perform the same duties as whites. In 1917, she became president of the Florida Federation of Colored Women, and in 1924, became president of the NAACP, at that time the highest national office to which a black woman could aspire.
She worked under presidents Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, and Theodore Roosevelt on child welfare, housing, employment, and education. In June of 1936, she was assigned director of the Division of Negro Affairs and became the first black woman to serve as head of a federal agency. As director, she traveled across the country, speaking out for equal education and treatment for blacks.
Mary McLeod Bethune was the forerunner of 'no child left behind.' She was a child of slavery, teacher, preacher, advocate, protester, politician, advisor to presidents.
Mary McLeod Bethune died on May 18, 1955.