Growing up in a small town in Upstate NY, I never learned about Mary McLeod Bethune. Maybe because of my location or maybe because the textbooks don’t do her justice. So I’m giving her a shoutout!
Mary McLeod Bethune was an educator, political advisor, and social visionary. She is known as one of the most prominent, and powerful women of color of the first half of the 20th century. Her life was dedicated to improving the lives of African Americans through education, political and economic empowerment.
She founded a school in 1904 with only 5 students and $1.50 in her pocket. That school soon grew and is now known as Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Florida. After the school had established itself, she wanted to do more for people of color.
She soon became a voice for women and especially Negro women. In 1935, she founded the National Council of Negro Women and her political career proceeded to kick off. She befriended Eleanor Roosevelt and became FDR’s best advisors on minority affairs and interracial relations. Bethune was the first African American woman to be involved in the White House and have the power to give FDR a ring at anytime. She was also the first African American woman to head a federal agency, serving as Director of the Division of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration.
Bethune’s influence was not limited to the United States. She dealt with many other countries and was honored by Harry Truman by being appointed to the founding conference of the United Nations in 1948. She was the only woman of color there.
Last week, I attended a book discussion at the Mary McLeod Bethune National Historic Site. Being in the original headquarters of the National Council of Negro Women was a great experience. We listened to Dr. Ashley Robertson talk about Mrs. Bethune and her everlasting legacy. It was inspiring to hear a young woman talk about one of her (S)heroes and made me think about our position as Centennial Volunteer Ambassadors. Our job is to inspire young people and make them want to care about our National Parks. It also made me think…”Who is our generation’s Mary McLeod Bethune?”. Who is going to have an impact so great that they are remembered for generations to come? Maybe it will be us. Let’s make it us. Do great. Be great. Create the Great!