Educator supreme Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune

Herb Boyd | 5/15/2014, 11:17 a.m.
There are so many exciting and innovative ways to invoke our immortal ancestors, and the Central Brooklyn Leadership Council and ...
Mary McLeod Bethune

There are so many exciting and innovative ways to invoke our immortal ancestors, and the Central Brooklyn Leadership Council and the Men’s Ministry of Historic First Church of God in Christ in Brooklyn did it wonderfully in a pre-Mother’s Day event by saluting four women with its second annual Mary McLeod Bethune: Light of Our Life Awards. One of the awardees, Nicole Bailey Muhammad, is an educator, like Bethune. Muhammad is the founder and director of the Learning Tree School.

Whether it was intended or not, the coordinator of the event, Bob Law, neatly brought the present and past together with Bethune and Muhammad, and while Muhammad continues in her educational mission, Bethune’s was long ago established, most memorably, with the founding of her school Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Fla., in 1904.


Find out more: Bethune left behind a trove of quotes that succinctly reveal her undying love to educate our young people. The best, and most accurate, information about her is at the school’s website, which was very helpful in writing this brief profile

Discussion: Education was foremost in Bethune’s mission, but we wonder how she would feel about the current issues, her feelings on pre-K and charter schools. A thorough reading of her writings provides at least a glimpse on how she would respond.

Place in context: Among the highest governmental positions for Bethune were in the Roosevelt administration and as a special representative to the founding conference of the United Nations, which occured in the early 1940s. Did she come along at the right time or was she responsible for making it the right time?

To say that Bethune was born (1875-1955) to great disadvantage is an understatement. She was the 15th child of former slaves who had a farm in Maysville, S.C., where she worked the fields along with the rest of the family until she was 10. It is not exactly clear how she miraculously ended up at Trinity Presbyterian Mission School, but that was the first step in her educational journey, and learning to read opened a “whole new world,” she later wrote.

As a student at Scotia Seminary in North Carolina, her eyes and mind were opened to even larger vistas of opportunity, and the next stop on the horizon was Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. It was here that the missionary zeal was promoted, and Bethune was an easy convert. Unfortunately, or fortunately, there were no missionary posts available when she graduated, and so she took teaching assignments at Haines Institute in Augusta, Ga., and then the Kendall Institute in Sumpter, S.C. It was at Sumpter in 1897 that she met and married Albertus Bethune.

Teaching at other academies only nurtured her dream of having her own school, which she first attempted in Palatka before settling in Daytona Beach, according to the school’s website. Her Normal and Industrial Institute was originally an all-girl’s school that eventually merged with the Cookman Institute of Jacksonville, Fla., in 1923. This institute was taken over by the Board of Education of the United Methodist Church (See: “The Aldridge Historically Black College Guide,” Detroit, 1984, p. 39). In 1941, a four-year college degree program in liberal arts and teaching training was inaugurated. Two years later, the school had its first graduates with degrees in elementary education.