“Invest in the human soul. Who knows, it may be a diamond in the rough.” These are the words of African American education advocate and activist Mary McLeod Bethune, who earned national prominence for her lifelong devotion to improving educational opportunities for blacks in the United States. Her 1943 portrait, by Betsy Graves Reyneau, is on view in the National Portrait Gallery’s “Twentieth Century Americans” exhibition on the museum’s third floor.
The fifteenth of seventeen children born to former slaves in South Carolina a decade after the end of the Civil War, Bethune (1875–1955) was accustomed to making something from nothing. She and her siblings used the charred splinters from burned logs as pencils and mashed elderberries for ink. Bethune searched through the city dump and trash piles behind hotels for discarded items that her family could use.
Bethune applied this same ingenuity to beginning her first school, believing that education offered African Americans the best route out of poverty. She taught two African American girls in a run-down old house, using packing crates for furniture and meat-wrapping paper to write on. Tuition was fifty cents a week when Bethune first opened the Daytona Literary and Industrial School for Training Negro Girls in Daytona Beach, Florida, in 1904 as an elementary school with just five pupils. However, Bethune never refused to educate a child whose parents could not afford to pay.
From its humble beginnings, Bethune’s school for girls began to accept boys as well. It eventually grew into a secondary school, then a junior college. In 1923 it merged with the Cookman Institute of Jacksonville. Renamed Bethune-Cookman College in 1929, its first four-year degrees in teacher education were conferred in 1943. Hanging in the background of Bethune’s portrait is a picture of Faith Hall, the first major building erected at the college.
Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial Statue in Lincoln Park, Washington, DC. Photo by Benjamin Bloom.
Mary McLeod Bethune / Betsy Graves Reyneau / Oil on canvas, 1943 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of the Harmon Foundation