The Unlikely Friendship of Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary McLeod Bethune

For nearly three decades, educator and civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune, often called the “First Lady of the Struggle,” forged an unlikely friendship with another first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt.

Bethune became a trusted advisor to both Roosevelt and her husband, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and played a key role in shaping government policies for Black Americans during the 1930s and ’40s.

Bethune came from humble beginnings

Born in South Carolina in 1875, Bethune was one of 17 children, and both her parents and most of her siblings had formerly been enslaved. The family struggled to get by, and Bethune picked cotton with her family to survive. When she was offered a spot in a local school opened by missionaries when she was 10, she jumped at the chance, becoming the first in her family to learn to read. She later won scholarships to study in North Carolina and Chicago, where she developed a lifelong passion for the uplifting possibilities of education, particularly for young Black girls.

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Abandoning her original plan to become a missionary, she moved to Florida and founded the Daytona Educational and Industrial School for Negro Girls. The school was an immediate success, growing from five students to more than 250 in just two years. In 1923, it merged with a nearby school to become Bethune-Cookman College, a four-year, coeducational school. Despite repeated threats from the KKK and other racist groups, Bethune became active in local, state and national civil rights organizations, opening the first hospital for Black people in the Daytona region, which also trained nurses. In 1924, she became president of the National Association of Colored Women, the nation’s largest Black woman’s political organization.

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