President of a college. Civil rights leader. First Black female head of a federal agency. Advisor to Franklin D. Roosevelt. The only Black woman present at the founding of the United Nations.
Born 1875, Mayesville, South Carolina. The daughter of two former slaves and forced to work the fields at a young age, Bethune saw a future beyond this through pursuing education. After getting her college degree, she started a school for girls in Daytona Beach, Florida in 1904 called the “Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls.” It started from 5 girls and 1 boy (her son). The success and enrollment of the school grew substantially and in 1923 merged with a men’s school to become the “Bethune-Cookman School”. The standards of its education program rivaled the competing white schools at the time.
In addition to being president of her own college, Bethune also answered the call of public service. She served as the Florida chapter president of the National Association of Colored Women from 1917 to 1925, registering many black voters and advocating the need of opportunities for black women. Bethune’s hard work earned her top spot as president of the national organization in 1924. She was also heavily involved with the National Youth Administration, a federal agency created during the depression to promote relief and employment for young people. She earned a spot as an assistant in 1936 and worked her way up within two years as the Director of the Division on Negro Affairs; she was the first Black female federal agency head in U.S. history.
As an avid supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt, she gained access to the White House, became close friends with Eleanor Roosevelt, and was appointed an advisor in Roosevelt’s “Black cabinet”. She served as an advisor to the administration on the issues facing black citizens in America.
Other honors include representing the NAACP as the only Black woman present at the founding of the United Nations in 1945. Bethune also served as the U.S. emissary to the induction of President William V.S. Tubman of Liberia in 1945. She died of a heart attack in 1955, but was posthumously inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1973.