The Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial Statue

On this lunchtime bike ride I rode to Lincoln Park, which is the largest urban park in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of northeast D.C., as well as one of the oldest parks in the national capitol city. Situated one mile directly east of the United States Capitol Building and four blocks northeast of Historic Eastern Market, it is bounded by 11th Street on the west, 13th Street on the east, the westbound lanes of East Capitol Street on the North, and East Capitol Street’s eastbound lanes on the south (MAP).  I rode to the park to see the memorial to Mary McLeod Bethune, which is in the eastern end of the park, directly across the park’s plaza, opposite The Emancipation Memorial.

Mary Jane McLeod was born on July 10, 1875, in a small log cabin in Mayesville, South Carolina. She was the fifteenth of seventeen children born to Sam and Patsy McIntosh McLeod, both former slaves. At an early age Mary began working, both in fields and by accompanying her mother to deliver “white people’s” laundry. She was also allowed to go into the white children’s nursery, where she became fascinated with their toys. One day when she picked up a book a white child took it away from her, saying that she didn’t know how to read. It was then that Mary decided that the only difference between white and colored folk was the ability to read and write. This inspired her to want to learn, and eventually to want to educate others.

McLeod began attending the local, one-room black schoolhouse. She was the only child in her family to attend school, but each day she would come home and teach her family what she had learned. Her teacher, Emma Jane Wilson, became young Mary’s mentor, and even helped Mary get a scholarship to attend her alma mater, Scotia Seminary, now known as Barber-Scotia College. She later also attended Dwight L. Moody’s Institute for Home and Foreign Missions in Chicago, now the Moody Bible Institute. She had initially hoped to become a missionary in Africa. But after being told that black missionaries were not needed, she began a teaching career that would become a large part of her lasting legacy.

Mary married Albertus Bethune in 1898, with whom she had a son named Albert the following year.  Albertus left the family in 1907 and relocated to South Carolina, but they never got a divorce. Albertus subsequently died from tuberculosis in 1918.  Albert Bethune grew up to become the coordinator of vocational services at Bethune-Cookman College, which was founded by his mother, where he worked until he retired.  He passed away at the age of 90 in 1989.

Mrs. Bethune’s background as a teacher inspired her to open the Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls in Daytona Beach, Florida, in 1904. After merging with the Cookman Institute, the school became Bethune-Cookman College. She not only proved her expertise as an educator, through her work with the college she also developed skills as an organizer and fundraiser. She would later employ these skills, when in 1935 she founded the National Council of Negro Women. Through research, advocacy, and national and community-based services and programs in both the United States and Africa, the National Council of Negro Women continues to this day as a non-profit organization with a mission of representing the national and international concerns of Black women.

In addition to being an educator and an organizer, she was also a political activist, and the first African American woman to be involved in The White House. She assisted four different presidents during her lifetime, but through her close and loyal friendship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and President Franklin D. Roosevelt, she had the most significant influence on President Roosevelt’s New Deal Government. She used her access and influence to form a coalition of leaders from black organizations called the Federal Council of Negro Affairs, which came to be known as the “Black Cabinet,” and served as an advisory board to the Roosevelt administration on issues facing black people in America.

In addition to her influence with presidents and others in the government, Bethune also became an employee of the Federal government. The National Youth Administration was a Federal agency created with the support of the Works Progress Administration, which administered provided programs to promote relief and employment for young people. It focused on unemployed citizens between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five who were not in school. Bethune lobbied the organization so aggressively and effectively for minority involvement that she earned a full-time staff position in 1936 as an assistant. Within two years, Bethune was appointed to position of Director of the Division of Negro Affairs, and as such, became the first African-American female division head in the Federal government.

Bethune died on May 18, 1955 at the age of 79.  Approximately twenty years later, on July 10, 1974, the anniversary of her 99th birthday, Bethune became the first black leader and the first woman to have a monument erected on public park land in D.C.  The statue, known as the Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial Statue, was designed by an American sculptor named Robert Berks, who also created hundreds of other bronze sculptures and monuments, including The Albert Einstein Memorial here in D.C.  The statue features an elderly Bethune handing a copy of her legacy to two young black children, as she supports herself with a cane given to her by President Roosevelt.

The memorial honors not only her legacy but her continuing influence through the college and the organization she founded. Bethune-Cookman College currently offers bachelor’s degrees in 26 major areas, and has graduated more than 13,000 students. And the National Council of Negro Women is today comprised of 39 national affiliates and over 240 sections, connecting more than four million women to the organization.

As I sat for a while in the park near the memorial, I watched as people walked their dogs, jogged, played with children, or simply relaxed and enjoyed the warm Spring day.  As I watched them, I wondered if any of them knew anything about the memorial, or who Mary McLeod Bethune was and the influence her life has had.  But now I do, and so do you.

MaryBethune02     MaryBethune03     MaryBethune04
[Click on the thumbnails above to view the full size photos]

  1. Great post. While I did know of Mary McLeod Bethune, I didn’t know all this. Years ago, I lived in Deland, Florida and the drive to the Beach takes you right past Bethune-Cookman College. Thanks for filling in all the blanks.

    Liked by 1 person

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