83 years ago, Mary McLeod Bethune founded the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), launching an inevitable wave of revolution for African-American women by increasing education opportunities and advocating for their civil rights.
Born in South Carolina to former slaves, Bethune was the 15th of 17 children and was able to attend Scotia Seminary and Moody Bible Institute with scholarships to pursue an education. After being rejected for missionary work in Africa, she remained in the South where she began teaching.
Perhaps one of her most notable achievements occurred in 1904 when she used $1.50 to start a school with only five students in Daytona, Florida. Her school transitioned throughout the years from a high school into today’s Bethune-Cookman University (B-CU).
Since 1943, the university has seen more than 13,200 students graduate. Popular fields alumni have gone on to work in include education, medicine, business, politics, government, science, religion, and athletics.
Bethune’s founding of NCNW was with the hope that the organization would represent both the national and international concerns of Black women. It was designed to marry the goals of social justice and basic human rights through constructive actions and unity.
In 1936, Bethune became the first African-American woman to be appointed a major position by President Franklin D. Roosevelt when she became Director of Negro Affairs in the National Youth Administration.
According to Dr. Yahya Jongintaba, a professor of Religion and Humanities at B-CU, Bethune is considered as one of the first distinguished thinkers of the the 20th Century among African-Americans.
“Usually Howard Thurman is given that distinction, but Mary McLeod Bethune was 25 years older,” Jongintaba said. “She influenced Howard Thurman, which he acknowledged in his eulogy to her, and in his autobiography.”
Just last month, the Florida Senate voted 37-0 to pass SB 472, legislation that will have Bethune’s statue replace Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith at the National Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C.
“Sometimes I ask myself if I have any other legacy to leave,” Bethune wrote. “Truly, my worldly possessions are few. Yet, my experiences have been rich. From them, I have distilled principles and policies in which I believe firmly, for they represent the meaning of my life’s work. They are the products of much sweat and sorrow. Perhaps in them there is something of value. So, as my life draws to a close, I will pass them on to Negroes everywhere in the hope that an old woman’s philosophy may give them inspiration.”
Bethune fought for women’s suffrage, raised money so that women could pay the poll tax, held instructional courses to help poor voters pass the literacy test, and became a part of the “Black Cabinet.”
Her efforts were integral during an era that saw its first African-American student admitted to a segregated university, first African-American woman to become a member of Congress, and a law calling for the immediate and full desegregation of schools in the South.
Bethune fought for equal representation and opportunity for people who had been powerless and without a voice. She rightfully remains a legacy today as one of the fundamental pioneers for equal rights.
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