Influential Educators

Mary McLeod Bethune photo; A mature woman in a long, dark dress standing behind a globe. She holds a cane in her left hand.

Mary McLeod Bethune

July 10, 1875 - May 18, 1955

Born to parents who were slaves and working in the fields herself by the age of 5 in Mayesville, South Carolina, Bethune took an interest to becoming educated. She attended a one-room schoolhouse - Trinity Mission School - and her teacher became a significant mentor in her life. Bethune later attended college with the goal of becoming a missionary in Africa, with big plans to teach.

Bethune started teaching at her former elementary school, and then at Haines Normal and Industrial Institute, founded and run by Lucy Craft Laney. Laney’s educational philosophies shaped Bethune’s, especially in the realm of educating girls and women to empower and improve the conditions of black people. Bethune was eventually transferred to Kindell Institute, where she met her husband.

She opened an African-American girls school in Daytona Beach, which later merged with a private institute African-American boys school, which became the Bethune-Cookman school, operating as President of the College from 1923 to 1942. Shortly after, Bethune had to give up her presidency, as her health was in decline due to her many responsibilities.

Bethune died in 1955 from a heart attack, with editorial tributes recalling her courage, resilience, and genius. Her hometown newspaper confirmed her legacy: “To some she seemed unreal, something that could not be.... What right had she to greatness?... The lesson of Mrs. Bethune's life is that genius knows no racial barriers.”

Why She Matters

As well as being an educator, Bethune was a civil rights activist who devoted herself to social causes and worked hard to advance the rights of both African-Americans and women.


Leaving a Legacy

Mary McLeod Bethune Council House - SmarterU LMS - Online Training Software
  • In 1973 (18 years after her death), she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
  • A crater on Venus is named after her.
  • Various schools have been named in her honor all across the United States.
  • Before her passing, Bethune penned her Last Will and Testament, and among her spiritual reflections and legacies, she wrote these resonating words: “I leave you a thirst for education. Knowledge is the prime need of the hour… If I have a legacy to leave my people, it is my philosophy of living and serving.”