“At Moody [Bible Institute], we learned to look upon a man as a man, not as a Caucasian or Negro,” said Mary McLeod Bethune. “A love for the whole human family entered my soul and remains with me to this day.” The fifteenth of seventeen children born to former slaves, Mary rose from the grips of poverty to become one of the greatest Kingdom ambassadors for education the world has ever known.
When her dream to become a missionary to Africa crumbled in 1895, Mary obtained a teaching position at the Haines Institute in Augusta, Georgia. Work at Haines fired Mary’s imagination of what she herself could achieve. She soon realized “that Africans in America needed Christ and school just as much as Negroes in Africa…. My life work lay not in Africa but in my own country.” She decided to commit herself to improving the education of young Black Americans.
In 1904, Mary arrived in Daytona Beach, where she had a prophetic dream of crossing a river. A man rode up to her on a horse as soon as she made it safely across the river. The man was Booker T. Washington, the country’s leading black educator. Washington took a soiled handkerchief from his pocket to wipe the sweat from his brow, then produced a glittering diamond and handed it to Mary. “This is for your school,” he told her. Inspired by her dream and her faith in God, Mary went on to found what later became the first fully accredited four-year college for Blacks in Florida. Students were instructed in spiritual matters as well as academics, often taking over the pastorates of the many mission churches Mary founded for migrant workers throughout the swamps of Florida.
The Lord continued to open doors for Mary, bringing her into contact with the wealthiest and most influential people of the early 20th Century. Booker T. Washington, himself, became a friend and colleague. Sponsors of her school and mission work included the Rockefellers, Carnegies, and Guggenheims. Her voice advocating for Black education found an ear with President Calvin Coolidge and later President Franklin Roosevelt. She became the first African American woman to head a federal agency under the Roosevelt administration. Her friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt greatly enhanced her status and gave her access to important political leaders. After Roosevelt’s death, President Truman named Mary Bethune to his Civil Rights Commission as the only African American woman consultant working to draw up the charter for the United Nations. She became known as the “First Lady of the Struggle” for her influence in early Civil Rights activism.
Mary often insisted that she had been blessed with a rich and wonderful life even though she had been born into poverty. At the end of her life, she wrote that she wanted to pass on the richness of her life’s experiences by inspiring acts of love and fellowship in others. Such a legacy, she hoped, would foster education and interracial cooperation. “Faith, courage, brotherhood, dignity, ambition, responsibility—these are needed today as never before,” she wrote. Truly, her words still ring true today.