Mary McLeod Bethune

Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955)

Portrait of Mary McLeod Bethune, Daytona Beach, Florida, circa 1915, courtesy of the State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

Mary McLeod Bethune is perhaps best known as a champion of African-American education. As a youngster, she taught her siblings and former-slave parents how to read. Today, the school she founded — Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Florida — receives support from The United Methodist Church’s Black College Fund.

But she also championed the rights of African-American voters. When women won the right to vote in 1920, she organized African American men and women in Florida to go to the polls. She raised money to pay poll taxes and offered special classes for the literacy tests, mandated by Jim Crow laws that tried to silence black voices.

Bethune’s own voice was definitely heard. She faced down the Ku Klux Klan. She led the way in desegregating the American Red Cross and Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. She was a bipartisan adviser to U.S. presidents, serving the Coolidge, Hoover and Roosevelt administrations.

Trudie Kibbe Reed, the first woman president of Bethune-Cookman since Bethune herself, said the university’s namesake continues to inspire. Reed, who retired in 2012, made it a priority to get her students to the polls to vote.

“She had a vision of giving education and empowerment to any of God’s people who needed help,” Kibbe Reed said. “She encouraged civic engagement, and that included voting.”

Mary McLeod Bethune was a Wesleyan women who helped form a more perfect union even as she was going on to Christian perfection.

March is Women’s History Month. Activists today may be inspired to hear the stories of six historic figures who advocated for women’s voting rights as part of their Christian calling.

This article is written by Heather Hahn and published by the United Methodist News Service on Nov. 3, 2016.
Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or



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