Mary McLeod Bethune overcame all odds to found a school to educate black people at a time of division and segregation in America.
Her solitary grave rests among the serene beauty of Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach.
Yet, the school’s founder — Mary McLeod Bethune — is never alone.
“People walk through here all day,” said Tasha Lucas-Youmans, Dean of the Carl S. Swisher Library on the Bethune-Cookman campus. “Some people just sit on the benches and meditate. Others will even talk to her.”
It's fitting considering the campus wouldn't be here if it weren't for Bethune's dream — and commitment — to making education available to black students.
Growing up in South Carolina
Her journey to found a college for black people seemed near-impossible for the African-American daughter of former slaves at the turn of the 20th century.
“Her parents instilled in her a strong work ethic and they also encouraged her to get an education,” Lucas-Youmans said. “Census records show she was reading by the time she was 4 years old.”
Born in Mayesville, South Carolina, in 1875, Mary McCleod was the 15th of 17 children born to former slaves Sam and Patsy McLeod. She was the first of her siblings to be born into freedom.
Early on, Mary would accompany her mother to the homes of white people where they would deliver laundry. On one occasion, a young Mary picked up a book but as she opened it, a white child took it away from her, saying Mary didn't know how to read.
Mary decided the only difference between white and black people was the ability to read and write. So, she set out to get an education.
Mary had to walk five miles to and from school. Being the only one of her siblings to attend school, she taught her brothers and sisters each day what she had learned.
It was clear then that being an educator would be part of her future.
Mary McLeod Bethune's dream
“Dr. Bethune had a dream that she would be an educator or missionary,” Lucas-Youmans said. “So, her initial career plight was to be a missionary in Africa, but she was unable to do that because of colonization. She decided to become an educator.”
Thanks to the help of her teacher, Mary got a scholarship and was able to attend Scotia Seminary, now Barber-Scotia College, in North Carolina, where she graduated in 1893.
In 1898, she married Albertus Bethune and moved to Savannah, Georgia. A year later they moved to Florida where they settled in Palatka and ran a mission school.
“It was there she heard about Henry Flagler building the Florida East Coast Railroad and she knew the railroad workers would need for the children to be educated,” Lucas-Youmans said. “So, she came to Daytona Beach in 1904 and founded this campus with only $1.50, five little girls and her faith in God.”
Bethune's school in Daytona Beach
The original school was nothing more than a small rented house where Bethune made benches and desks from discarded crates and acquired other items through charity. It bordered the city dump.
Bethune was quoted as saying: “I considered cash money as the smallest part of my resources. I had faith in a loving God, faith in myself, and a desire to serve."
The school grew immediately. By the end of the first year Bethune was teaching 30 girls.
In 1907, Albertus left Mary and moved to South Carolina. Undeterred, Mary continued to pour her soul into the school and its students.
As the school grew, so did Bethune’s gumption in asking for help.
“She had the audacity to go to beachside and be brazen enough to confront these people, a lot of the wealthy white people that would come here for summer vacation, and talk to them and encourage them to help,” Lucas-Youmans said. “And the fact that they would even listen to this poor little black girl from Mayesville, South Carolina, that said she had a dream that she was going to build a school on a city dump. They did. They believed her.”
In 1914, Thomas White of White Sewing Machine and James Gamble of Proctor and Gamble donated money to buy a Victorian-style two-story house for Bethune, which still stands at the northeast corner of the campus.
The house, open for tours from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily, is listed on the National Register of Historical places. Beside it lies Bethune’s grave, which is surrounded by flowers with white benches on either side. Near the headstone is a large iron bell that she used to round up students in the early days of the school.
Expansion of the school continued throughout the next decade and in 1923 her school merged with Cookman Institute of Jacksonville and became co-ed while also gaining the United Methodist Church affiliation.
In 1925 the combined school’s name was changed to Daytona-Cookman Collegiate Institute.
It wasn’t until 1931 that the school’s name was officially changed to Bethune-Cookman College to reflect the leadership of Bethune.
A school president — who met the president
It was at this time that she became the school’s president, a post she held until 1942, when she retired.
Along the way, she befriended First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who stayed at her home on the Bethune-Cookman campus on three different occasions.
“When the First Lady came, she traveled with Secret Service,” said India Woods, who works for the Mary McLeod Bethune Foundation. “The room once had a door but secret service had to take the door down because they had to watch over her as she slept.”
Through their friendship, Bethune met President Franklin Roosevelt and he named her to be chair of the National Youth Administration, a federal agency.
At different points of her life Bethune served as the Florida Chapter president of the National Association of Colored Women, founded the National Council of Negro Women and she co-founded the United Negro College Fund in 1944.
Bethune died of a heart attack in 1955 at age 79.
Her legacy is already cemented in history, but it will be further etched in granite when a statue of her is placed in the National Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol as a representative of Florida.
It will be the first state-commissioned statue of an African American placed in National Statuary Hall.
Her statue will replace that of Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith.
“I think her legacy speaks for itself,” Lucas-Youmans said. “Words cannot describe what she has done and I don’t know another woman who was able to do what she did during that time in history, but she did it.”
Walters can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story originally published to naplesnews.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the new Gannett Media network.