Mary McLeod Bethune: A snapshot biography

“We have a powerful potential in our youth, and we must have the courage to change old ideas and practices so that we may direct their power toward good ends.”

Mary McLeod Bethune
Mary McLeod Bethune


People called Mary McLeod Bethune “The First Lady of The Struggle.” The struggle being improving life for African Americans.

Born in 1875 in a small cabin close to Mayesville, South Carolina, Mary was the fifteenth of seventeen children of parents who had been enslaved.

From a young age, Mary was inspired to learn. With encouragement from her parents, she’d walk five miles a day to attend the mission school nearby. The experience set a foundation for her life. “The whole world opened to me when I learned to read,” Mary would say.

For Mary, her love for learning evolved into a profession of teaching. And after some years of being a teacher, Mary opened the Daytona Literary and Industrial Training Institute for Negro Girls in 1904. The initial class of six students learned from a curriculum that began at 5:30am with Bible study and continued throughout the day with a focus on self-sufficiency skills development until the school day ended at 9pm. And with sparse financial resources, as Mary started the Institute with only $1.50, amongst a number of cost-saving initiatives, students made pencils from burned wood and ink from elderberry juice. But within a couple of years, the number of students attending grew to two hundred and fifty.

Mary had a motto for life: “not for myself, but for others.” Following this creed, she dedicated herself to many initiatives throughout life. Amongst educating young students, she opened a hospital and training programs for nurses, took an active role in politics, where she held a number of positions, including Director of Negro Affairs at the National Youth Administration, and helped integrate organizations such as the Red Cross.

Mary passed away in 1955. In her Last Will and Testament, she wrote nine maxims,

“I leave you to love. I leave you to hope. I leave you the challenge of developing confidence in one another. I leave you a thirst for education. I leave you a respect for the use of power. I leave your faith. I leave you racial dignity. I leave you a desire to live harmoniously with your fellow men. I leave you a responsibility to our young people.”


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To cite:

“Mary McLeod Bethune: A snapshot biography”. Historical Snapshots.

“Mary McLeod Bethune: A snapshot biography” sources:

Bethune-Cookman University – & / Coursen, W. L. (William Ludlow), 1880-1967. Mary McLeod Bethune – Daytona Beach, Florida. 1915 (circa). State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory. Accessed 29 Nov. 2021.<>. /  Letter from Mary McLeod Bethune to Josephine T. Washington, 1946