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"The First Lady of Struggle"

Mary Jane McLeod was born into the Jim Crow South just a decade after the end of the American Civil War, on July 10, 1875 in Mayesville, South Carolina. Mary worked alongside her parents and siblings picking upwards of 250 pounds of cotton in just one day.

When Mary was ten, a missionary from the Presbyterian Church stopped at the McLeod home and told the family that the Mission Board of the Presbyterian Church had opened a school for African American children called the Trinity Presbyterian Mission School. It was a five mile walk from her home, but Mary wanted an education, and she insisted that her parents enroll her. Due to a life-changing event in her early childhood, Mary had an unshakable belief in the power of literacy. One day, while Mary was playing with the white children of her mother’s employer she discovered a book and out of curiosity she began to flip through the pages. Then one of the white children grabbed the book away, exclaiming, “Put that down! You can’t read!” To the young Mary it appeared at that moment that the only difference between whites and Blacks was “just this matter of reading and writing.” So, when she saw an opportunity to learn to read and write she jumped at it. At that little one-room school she had her first encounter with the power of education and after learning how to read and write, according to her, “the whole world opened to me.” Education transformed Mary’s life and little did she know at that time, but education would transport her from the cotton fields of South Carolina all the way to the White House.

A few years later Mary was selected by her teacher to receive a scholarship to Scotia Seminary for Girls in North Carolina. After completing two years of coursework, Mary then received another scholarship to attend the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago where she was the only African American student. She excelled in her classes and although Mary originally wanted to be a Christian missionary and travel to Africa, when she was informed that there were no positions available at that time for African Americans she returned to Mayesville and taught at the school she once attended. Later she transferred to another Presbyterian Mission School, the Haines Institute in Augusta, Georgia; it was there that she worked with famed African American educator Lucy Craft Laney.

Mary had a lot in common with Lucy, both were daughters of former slaves and both were highly educated Black women in the deep South who grew up in the years directly following the Civil War. Lucy opened the first African American school in Augusta, Georgia and later opened the first African American kindergarten and nursing school. Lucy parted company with other notable African American educators of the time, particularly Booker T. Washington. While Washington promoted vocational education, Lucy believed in a more traditional liberal arts education and taught her students literature, writing, science, and math. It was in Lucy’s example that Mary saw her own potential path. It wouldn’t be long before Mary was on her own, forming her own school. Although Mary only taught with Lucy for a year, the two were fond of one another, and Lucy said of Mary: “I was so impressed with her fearlessness, her amazing touch in every respect, an energy that seemed inexhaustible and her mighty power to command respect and admiration from her students and all who knew her. She handled her domain with the art of a master.”

Classroom Resources

Primary Document: Interview with Mary McLeod Bethune conducted by Dr. Charles Spurgeon Johnson (1939-1940):
In this wonderful resource Mary McLeod Bethune discusses her life and education.

Lesson Plan: An Interview with Mary McLeod Bethune (4th-5th grade):
Fourth to fifth grade standards-based lesson plan based on the interview between Mary McLeod Bethune and Dr. Johnson written by Katrina Harkness of the Florida State Archives. Lesson includes reading analysis, writing prompts, and math work.

Primary Document: Interview with Mary McLeod Bethune conducted by Daniel Mortimer Williams (1946):
Mr. Williams had planned on writing a biography on Mary McLeod Bethune and conducted several interviews with her in 1946. Included is a list of questions Mr. Williams had planned to ask Mary and an excerpt from the first draft of the biography he had planned to write but never finished.

Primary Document: Mary McLeod Bethune’s “Last Will and Testament” (August, 1955):
This excellent resource for students includes the full text of an essay written by Mary McLeod Bethune for Ebony, entitled “Last Will and Testament.” The document outlines her personal ethics and value system.

Lesson Plan: The Mary McLeod Bethune Council House: African American Women Unite for Change (6th-8th grade):
A Teaching with Historic Places Lesson Plan
Lesson plan from the National Parks Service about “The Council House”