IPR is featuring some of the many female pioneers who have had an impact on the field of public relations in celebration of Women’s History Month.
Born in South Carolina in 1875, Mary McLeod Bethune grew up post-Civil War with parents who were formerly enslaved. She went to school at Dwight Moody’s Institute for Home and Foreign Missions in Chicago, then became a teacher in South Carolina.
She opened the Daytona Beach Literary and Industrial School for Training Negro Girls, which was a boarding school in 1904. In the span of two years, the school grew from five students to over 250. The school eventually merged with the Cookman Institute of Jacksonville, Florida in 1923 and became Bethune-Cookman College.
Bethune was a leader for gender and racial equality, and as such started and was heavily involved in other organizations. She noticed the health disparities Black people faced in Daytona Beach, so she opened the Mary McLeod Hospital and Training School for Nurses. She became the founding president of the National Council of Negro Women.
As the leader Bethune was, she was appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the National Youth Administration in 1936, the only female member of Roosevelt’s influential “Black Cabinet.” In 1939 she became the Director of Negro Affairs, which oversaw the training of tens of thousands of black youth. She worked closely with Eleanor Roosevelt to bring pilot training programs to historically Black colleges and universities, which led to the first Black pilots to enter the industry.
In 1940, she became vice president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons (NAACP). She was part of the advisory board that created the Women’s Army Corps. In her long list of accomplishments, she also served on President Harry Truman’s Committee of Twelve for National Defense.
Bethune died in 1955 and is buried on the campus of the school she opened. Her life was honored with the creation of a statue in Washington D.C. in 1974.
In 2022, Bethune became the first African-American to be represented at the National Statuary Hall Collection at the U.S. Capitol.
Mary McLeod Bethune
National Women’s History Museum
Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune
Mary McLeod Bethune
National Park Service