Mary Jane McLeod was born on July 10, 1875 on a rice and cotton farm near Mayesville, South Carolina, where both of her parents and most of her sibling were enslaved. She was the second to the last child of 17. Her parents worked hard to purchase the land upon which they were enslaved and her mother also worked washing clothes.
Young Mary would often accompany her mother to deliver the laundry. While she was on one of these trips, Mary picked up a book in the room of one of the little white children. One of the white children snatched it from her said, “You don’t know how to read!” That was the spark that sent Mary on a mission to not only master reading, but also teach others.
McLeod walked five miles a day to attend the one-room school for coloreds in Mayesville, which was run by the Presbyterian Board of Missions of Freedman. She was the only child in her family to attend school, but every day after school she taught her siblings what she learned.
After marrying Albertus Bethune and moving to Georgia, she was enticed to start a school in Florida. They moved to Palatka, Florida in 1899 and McLeod Bethune ran a mission school and started an outreach program for prisoners there. Her husband later left her and their son, Albert, and he later died in 1918 from tuberculosis.
McLeod Bethune moved back to South Carolina where she worked as a teacher briefly at her former elementary school in Sumter County. She co-founded the United Negro College Fund in April 25, 1944, and also raised enough money to start her own school, which would evolve into Bethune-Cookman University.
A friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, McLeod Bethune was appointed as a national adviser to the president Franklin D. Roosevelt as part of his so-called Black Cabinet. She was known as “The First Lady of The Struggle” because of her commitment to gain better lives for African Americans.