This article is from the issue: Volume 5, Issue 2—Women in International Development

5. Mary McLeod Bethune: An Agent of Change and Leadership

Nov 01, 2016

Introduction of This Lady

Considering the universal Christian church, it is very important for us members of the Christendom to recognize and acknowledge our great servant and contributor. This is a lady that should not only be remembered for her work in the social/economic development within the United States of America, the African American community/civil rights, or women’s rights, but also for her heroics and inspirational advancements as a vocational minister. Her groundbreaking achievements are a cornerstone of how a person can use Christian faith as the foundation of using vocational trades to share the Gospel. This research will highlight this lady that is also known as “The Black Rose” and her contribution to the Christian community in America and her inspiration for people across the world, especially women.

Between 1933 and 1945, Mary McLeod Bethune was arguably the most powerful African American person in America. According to her own testimony, this was due largely to the exercise of her religious faith. Her devout Christian faith was a faith planted within the environment of a devout Christian home and nurtured during its early stages within the fellowship of an all-African American Methodist Church. However, she would not officially affiliate with Methodism until she was nearly fifty years old. For the better part of her life she practiced her faith under the banner of Presbyterianism. Mary Bethune emerged as one of the nation’s foremost leaders, barring race and gender, during the first half of the twentieth century (Newsome 1992, 7-8).

She was the first African American lady to establish a four-year institution of higher learning—in the world. As Bethune-Cookman College. She is the first African American lady to found a national organization to lobby the federal government primarily on behalf of black women and children, the National Council of Negro Women; and, as director of the Negro Division of the National Youth Administration (NYA) during the Franklin D. Roosevelt presidency, she was the first African American lady, and also the first African American person to hold such a high-level federal appointment. Over the course of her career she was an advisor to three presidents (Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Harry S. Truman) and the recipient of many of the nation’s most coveted awards, including the NAACP’s prestigious Spingarn Medal (Newsome 1992, 7-8).

Mary McLeod Bethune was born in a farming environment of Mayesville, South Carolina, on July 10, 1875. As the fifteenth of seventeen children, her parents were freed slaves who depended upon employment from their former owners for financial stability. Her parents converted to Christianity during the period of their enslavement. Both her father and her mother, Samuel McLeod and Patsy Mcintosh, belonged to men who were regarded throughout the community as being God-fearing, Christian, church-going gentlemen. During their enslavement Bethune’s parents were often forced to attend church with their owners.  The McLeods were serious about their faith as they felt entirely the racial discrimination, political disfranchisement, and economic deprivation that damaged the environment. Despite all the disadvantages one could endure, including being of female gender, Bethune overcame the odds and credited the Lord for this.

An Agent of Change

Historically, it has been a phenomenon for many years that African Americans were largely excluded from American history. This doesn’t mean that they were not officially mentioned in American history. Rather, they were mentioned, but not so much as agents and contributors but more so as objects and as an annoying population that should have only been serviceable for laboring and pleasing the White American majority in whatever way possible. We should also remember that there were several laws placed against African Americans, and those laws denied them the equality with their White American contemporaries.

Usually, African Americans’ presentation from the White American majority excluded their origin in Africa. It was also not usually emphasized that they greatly contributed something productive or productive enough to American customs. For example, an elder African American lady once told me that she didn’t know that African Americans had such inventions to their credit or accomplished such great achievements until she studied in college. This was a late study for her because she claimed that she wasn’t taught this historical information as a student in grade school. Currently, this elder lady is barely over the age of 60. Imagine how much more historical information was excluded during Mary McLeod Bethune’s generation.

Historically Black Colleges were important in developing the study of African American history, not only by introducing courses in the subject but also by having faculty members that devoted themselves to teaching the subject matter (Early 2004, 30-32). We recognize Bethune-Cookman College, now known as Bethune-Cookman University, as a Historically Black College because it was founded by an African American person, Bethune. We also recognize it as a college/university affiliated with the United Methodist Church (Hawkins 2012, 14-15). As founder and president of Bethune Cookman-College, Bethune gave many African Americans an opportunity to learn how to read & write and definitely a chance to learn how to read the Bible. Interestingly, while attending college, even though Bethune wanted to become a cross-cultural worker in Africa, she never became one. Instead, she established a school for African American young ladies in Florida. Eventually, this school would partner with an African American boys’ school. As a result, Bethune-Cookman School was established. It became the first fully accredited four-year college for African Americans in Florida (Hanson 2003, 35).  Bethune would have many opportunities ministering to her students on her own college campus. 

Before Bethune established Bethune-Cookman College, she relocated to Palatka, Florida with her husband Albertus, and gave birth to a son, Albert. In Palatka, she opened a Christian school, where she taught for five years. She later moved to Daytona, where crime, prejudice, ignorance, and inadequate educational facilities prompted her to make a difference. Thus, opening the Daytona Normal and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls in 1904. Beginning with five young students, these young ladies were instructed in Christian piety and self-reliance. The young ladies were to rise early in the morning for Bible study. In 1905, Bethune campaigned to outlaw the local scale of liquor. This launched an evangelical campaign for restraining alcoholic drinks among African Americans that lived in the lumber companies’ work camps near Daytona. Over time, this offered academic subjects and expanded to include a farm, high school, and nursing school. By its second year of enrollment, the school consisted of 250 students (Gates 2000, 42-45).

Bethune was known to be deeply religious, firmly believing in the power of prayer. Whenever there was difficulty, she would say, “Let’s go have prayer.” While in her office, she would pray out loud, prompting others to get on their knees and bow their heads. She also repeated hymns, “Oh what a fellowship, leaning on the everlasting arms.” Her faith gave her confidence and direction (Height 1994, 102).

It is obvious that Bethune was a very busy person as president of the school. She did not stop there. Bethune also served as an overseer of local women’s organizations. This work peaked into her founding of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) in 1935. The NCNW would eventually aid the African American community in social welfare programs. After joining Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal administration, she served on FDR’s “Black Cabinet” advising the president on race matters from 1936-1945. From 1939-1943, she was director of Negro Affairs for the National Youth Administration. Bethune fought towards securing state and local government positions for African Americans. Bethune’s heroic commitments reflected her religious sensibilities, combining her faith with shrewd intelligence (Gates Jr. & West 2000, 42-45). 

It is clear that she resented racism, sexism, chauvinism, and cared for the people that shared her ethnicity. Through her lifestyle, Bethune was even more distinct that her motives and intentions reflected her faith in the Lord. With all of these accomplishments mentioned, it is safe to presume that she would not have embodied such diligence and sincerity if she did not remember the Lord first. Dr. James Melvin Washington writes that the absurdities of racism insinuate themselves in conscious and unconscious ways in the lives of Black people. Religion has been a central way for us to maintain our sanity (Washington 1994, xxviii). 

Bethune served in vocational ministry for decades. These decades of her service consisted of some of the worst ordeals in American history. Ordeals that involved too much negativity both inside and towards the African American community. Dr. James Melvin Washington also wrote that demons thrive best in the dark intervening time periods of human history, and the parentage of real power lies in the sinister womb of negativity (Washington 1994, xxxvii-xxxviii).  Bethune was not only a fighter, but a champion. A hero of the faith. Why would she not be considered as An Agent of Change in International Development?

Legacy

We understand Christendom as the worldwide Christian community. Mary McLeod Bethune’s legacy in the Christendom is vast. As mentioned earlier, she was the first African American lady to establish a four-year institution of higher learning in the world, and this institution affiliated with the United Methodist Church. Today, there are several Historically Black Colleges that are affiliated with the United Methodist Church. This is not to say that Bethune is the main reason for the development of Historically Black Colleges’ affiliation with the UMC, but it is to say that she might be the first woman to lead a higher education institution affiliated with the United Methodist Church. It can be agreed that Bethune’s faith, leadership as a woman, and partnership with UMC carried over to other Historically Black Colleges and colleges for women.

Currently, Bethune-Cookman University, Bennet College for Women, Claflin University, Clark Atlanta University, Dillard University, Huston-Tillotson University, Meharry Medical College, Paine College, Philander Smith College, Rust College, and Wiley College are affiliated with the United Methodist Church (Hawkins 2012, 14).  As mentioned earlier, in 1904 Bethune opened the Daytona Normal and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls in 1904. Beginning with five young students, these young ladies were instructed in Christian piety and self-reliance. A similar establishment happened in 1915, when Katharine Drexel, a Philadelphia heiress turned Catholic Nun and later honored as a saint, used her inheritance to open a high school for Black and Native American children in an American southern state. Drexel wanted to give Black and Native American children the Catholic-oriented education she thought they lacked. Drexel and the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament added Xavier University of New Orleans, a four-year college, in 1925. It remains the country’s only Black Catholic University (Hawkins 2012, 15).

While gender inequality exists in the United States between men and women in nearly almost all social classes and all racial and ethnic groups, the form and meaning of this inequality varies among different groups and classes. The challenges and problems faced by working-class women are different from the challenges and problems faced by middle-class women. African American and Latina Women are confronted with different problems and different forms of gender inequality from those faced by White American, Non-Hispanic women. Considering gender, ethnicity, and labor force participation, one way these experiences have been different is the extent to which the role of women has been linked to the home as opposed to work outside the home. Middle-class women brought about the housewife role. The expectation was that the husband would be the one that earns the money to support the family, while the wife remained at home, raised the children and cared for the house (Farley 2000, 436).

Bethune overcame the odds of being a woman, being African American, and being a descendent of slaves. She was not a typical housewife; she was not a working-class woman. Yet, she’s considerably one of the hardest-working women in American history and an outstanding, recognizable contributor in the Christian community. Bethune died on May 18, 1955. As we remember women as agents of change in international development, let’s remember Mary Mcleod Bethune.

References

Early, Gerald. 2004. “African-American History.” American Heritage 55, no. 6 (November/December): 30-32.

E. Farley, John. 2000. Majority-Minority Relations, 4th ed. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall.

Gates Jr., Henry Louis and Cornel West. 2000. The African American Century: How Black Americans Have Shaped Our Country. New York: The Free Press.

Hanson, Joyce A. 2003. “Mary McLeod Bethune: Race Woman.” New Crisis 110, no. 2 (March/April): 34-37.

Hawkins, Denise.2012. “Echoes of Faith.” Diverse: Issues in Higher Education 29, no. 12 (July): 14-15.

Height, Dorothy. “Mary McLeod Bethune.” Essence 24, no. 10 (February): 102.

Newsome, Clarence. “Mary McLeod Bethune and the Methodist Episcopal Church North: In but Out.” The Journal of Religious Thought 49, no. 1 (Summer-Fall).  http://divinity.howard.edu/(Publisher’s URL:) (accessed April 16, 2016).

Namarr Newson

Namarr Newson is a graduate of Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, KY whose major field of study was Intercultural Studies, and he is currently involved in community outreach with Native American Indians. He is currently a doctoral student at William Carey International University in International Development, under the guidance and insight of WCIU’s ongoing partnership with the North American Institute of Indigenous Theological Studies.