Meet civil rights pioneer & Bethune-Cookman University founder Mary McLeod Bethune

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Bethune-Cookman University Founder Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune is regarded as one of America’s most influential civil rights pioneers.


She was born Mary Jane McLeod in 1875 near Mayesville, South Carolina to parents who were former slaves.

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Inspired to learn how to read and write at an early age, Mary was the only child in her family to attend school.

She went on to attend a seminary school in North Carolina with plans to eventually become a missionary in Africa. However, upon learning that black missionaries weren’t needed, she shifted her focus to teaching African Americans.

After her marriage to Albertus Bethune in 1898, Mary set in motion her plan to establish a school for girls.

With $1.50, Bethune started the Daytona Literary and Industrial Training Institute for Negro Girls in 1904.

Bethune made pencils from charred wood, ink from elderberries, and mattresses from moss-stuffed corn sacks.

Her first class was made up of five girls and her son, Albert, but in just two years the school grew to 250 students.

Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune : Founder, Bethune-Cookman University

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She didn’t stop there. After recognizing the health disparities among Daytona Beach’s African American community, she also founded the Mary McLeod Hospital and Training School for Nurses- a first of its kind on the East coast.

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Daytona Normal, as the institute was called, would merge with the Cookman Institute of Jacksonville in 1923 to become Bethune-Cookman College. The school achieved university status in 2007 and now boasts an enrollment of more than 2,500 students.

Even while running her school, Bethune helped establish and lead several prominent civil rights organizations.

She founded the National Council of Negro Women in 1935 and was one of the founding members of the United Negro College Fund.

In 1936, Bethune was appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the National Youth Administration, a New Deal agency aimed at providing work and education opportunities for young Americans. There, she was the director of Negro Affairs, which facilitated the training of tens of thousands of young African Americans.

Bethune died in Daytona Beach in 1955, but her legacy lives on in a myriad of ways.

The U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in her honor in 1985 and schools have been named for her in dozens of U.S. cities.

Created in 1989, the Mary McLeod Bethune Scholarship program offers financial assistance to Florida students who attend one of the historically black colleges and universities in the state.

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Just last year she became the first African-American to represent a state in the national Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol.

On the Bethune-Cookman University Campus sits the Mary McLeod Bethune home and gravesite. A national landmark, much of the furnishings and many of the items are left just as they were the day Bethune died.

Click here to plan a visit.

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