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  • Writer's pictureLeigh Gerstenberger

First Lady


I was introduced to Mary McLeod Bethune recently while reading First Ladies by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murray.

This work of historical fiction (and the subject of this week’s book recommendation) recounts the story of an unlikely friendship that developed between Dr. Bethune and Eleanor Roosevelt during their passionate struggle in the civil rights movement.

A summary of Dr. Bethune’s many accomplishments taken from the Bethune-Cookman University’s website is below.  A statue of Dr. Bethune holding a black rose was unveiled in the U.S. Capital on July 13, 2022

Bethune-Cookman University’s founder, Mary McLeod Bethune, is one of America’s most inspirational daughters. Educator. National civil rights pioneer and activist. Champion of African American women’s rights and advancement. Advisor to Presidents of the United States. The first in her family not to be born into slavery, she became one of the most influential women of her generation.

Dr. Bethune famously started the Daytona Literary and Industrial Training Institute for Negro Girls on October 3, 1904, with $1.50, vision, an entrepreneurial mindset, resilience, and faith in God. 

She created “pencils” from charred wood, ink from elderberries, and mattresses from moss-stuffed corn sacks. Her first students were five little girls and her five-year-old son, Albert Jr. In less than two years, the school grew to 250 students. 

Recognizing the health disparities and lack of medical treatment available to African Americans in Daytona Beach, she also founded the Mary McLeod Hospital and Training School for Nurses, which at the time was the only school of its kind that served African American women on the east coast.

Daytona Normal would continue to increase in popularity, and merged with the Cookman Institute of Jacksonville, Florida in 1923 and became Bethune-Cookman College.

Tireless, talented, and committed to service, Dr. Bethune held leadership positions in several prominent organizations even while also leading her school. In 1935, she founded the National Council of Negro Women, which would become a highly influential organization with a clear civil rights agenda. 

She was appointed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the National Youth Administration in 1936. By 1939 she was the organization’s Director of Negro Affairs, which oversaw the training of tens of thousands of black youths. She was the only female member of President Roosevelt’s influential “Black Cabinet.”  She leveraged her close friendship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to lobby for integrating the Civilian Pilot Training Program and to bring the Program to the campuses of historically Black colleges and universities, which led to graduating some of the first black pilots in the country. 

There is so much more. She was one of the founders of the United Negro College Fund. Her civil rights work helped integrate the Red Cross. She was the only woman of color at the founding conference of the United Nations. Appointed by President Harry S. Truman, she led the US delegation to Liberia for the inauguration of President William V.S. Tubman in 1949. 

In 1951, she served on President Truman’s Committee of Twelve for National Defense. She received an honorary doctorate from Rollins College.  In 2022, she became the first African American to represent a state in the National Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol.

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