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Mary McLeod Bethune

1875 – 1955

“For I am my mother's daughter, and the drums of Africa still beat in my heart. They will not let me rest while there is a single Negro boy or girl without a chance to prove his worth.”

A Yearning for Learning

With some of her brothers and sisters born into slavery before the Civil War, Mary McLeod Bethune decided at a young age that education was going to be her path to a better life. In 1904, Bethune started the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Training Negro Girls, with an enrollment of five students, each of whom paid tuition of 50 cents a week. Over the years, the school expanded, and it eventually became Bethune-Cookman College, a highly regarded co-ed African-American institution in Daytona, Florida.

In 1935, Bethune founded the National Council of Negro Women and was its first president. She believed that in order to make real progress, black women should have their own organization, separate and apart from those that promoted the causes of all women. 

Flash forward: With Eleanor Roosevelt speaking out on racial issues, she reassured her husband, Franklin D. Roosevelt to take seriously the concerns of African-Americans. With the election of 1936, he began appointing blacks to various posts in his administration. 

In 1936, President Roosevelt appointed Bethune director of the Division of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration. She became part of what became known as FDR’s “Black Cabinet.”

Bethune was the first African-American woman to head a federal agency; her mandate was to find jobs for young people aged 16 to 24. Tackling the job with her usual determination, she invited prominent men and women to her home in Washington D.C. for informal meetings and discussions. Since she had the ear of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, she was able to get many African-Americans involved with federal issues that affected their lives. 

Bethune was FDR’s special advisor on minority affairs from 1935 to 1944.

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