Let’s Learn about Mary McLeod Bethune! Teaching a More Multicultural American History

Portrait of Mary McLeod Bethune Scurlock Studio Records Archives Center NMAH, Smithsonian Institution

Dr. David Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

In celebration of Black History month we would like to share an article that was originally posted June 2019. It is important that we continue to highlight key individuals in black history.

Originally posted June 2021
When social studies educators teach history they can teach students about the discipline of historical studies, helping students take on the role of historians. This method of teaching is what scholar Jerome Bruner called the “new social studies.” There are different genres of history that teachers can help students explore. For example there is military history, history of religion, social history, political history, public history, cultural history, diplomatic history, economic history, environmental history, world history, people’s history and intellectual history. One great genre of history that can be very useful in the social studies classroom is the use of biographies to teach history. That is, teachers can do an in-depth study of the life of historic figures, gleaning from the major contributions they made to history and also looking at their everyday lives.

Although, social studies curriculum is gradually beginning to change, when many textbooks cover the lives of particular individuals in American history, often there is a Eurocentric focus. They emphasize European American males such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. With this mindset the lives and accomplishments of many noteworthy people in American history are overlooked. One such noteworthy person that is often overlooked is Mary McLeod Bethune.   

Mary Jane McLeod Bethune (1875-1955) was an American educator, stateswoman, philanthropist, humanitarian, and civil rights activist. Bethune was born in the small town of Mayesville, South Carolina, to enslaved parents. No stranger to hard work, she had to work in the fields with her family at the young age of five, even after her parents were emancipated.

Bethune took an early interest in education. She attended a one-room black school house called Trinity Mission School (A school led by the Presbyterian Board of Missions of Freedmen). She was the only child in her family to receive an education; as a result she went home each night and taught the family what she learned. After finishing Trinity Mission School she received a scholarship to Scotia Seminary (now Barber-Scotia College).

Bethune started a private school for African-American girls in Daytona Beach, Florida. The school later merged with a private institute for African-American boys and became known as the Bethune-Cookman School and ultimate the well-known Bethune-Cookman University. Bethune maintained high standards and promoted the school with tourists and donors, to demonstrate what educated African Americans could do. She was president of the college from 1923-1942, and then again in 1946-1947. She was one of the few women in the world to serve as a college president at that time.  

Given the title “The First Lady of The Struggle” Bethune became increasingly known for her work as an educator, and for her advocacy for the betterment of women and African American lives. She went on to work on Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidential campaign in 1932 and as a result was invited as a member of his Black Cabinet. Her role on the Cabinet allowed her to advise the president on concerns of black people and helped share Roosevelt’s message and achievements with blacks.

When studying American history the story is not complete without studying individuals like Mary McLeod Bethune. In contemporary times, state and national standards require that educators teach a diverse curriculum that explores a wide spectrum of people and cultures. In this way, American history does not only cover those of European descent; but also those of many other cultural backgrounds including African American.       

Discussion Questions:
1. What are concepts and ideas we can glean from Bethune’s life to help us overcome obstacles we face today?
2. In what ways can Bethune’s life help empower the lives of African Americans and women?
3. How can teachers incorporate material about Bethune and others like her into their curriculum?
4. Discuss reasons why African Americans and other minorities have been omitted in historical studies.
5. Why do you think there has been an over emphasis of European history and European American culture and history?

References
Mary McLeod Bethune 1875-1955- National Women’s History Museum Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955)
Mary McLeod Bethune- Wikipedia
Mary McLeod Bethune Biography
Statue of Educator Mary Bethune Proposed To Replace Florida’s Confederate Soldier In DC
The New Social Studies: A Historical Examination of Curriculum Reform
Social History
Historiography

4 Comments

  1. Throughly enjoyed this article about Mary Bethune, and her contribution to education, Dr. Childs. I totally agree that students should be taught the different genres of history, because it is more than one sided, which is how it had been taught for many years. It’s time to change that. Thank you for this article.

  2. I have never heard of Mary McLeod Bethune before, so I loved reading this article. I thought it was interesting that Bethune had been an educator her whole life starting when she was a student taking material back home to her family. I also found it fascinating that Bethune even went on to work with Roosevelt! I agree that it is important to teach children about women like Bethune in history just for the fact that it can catch their attention and give make them feel empowered; if she can help people, I can help people too!

  3. “When studying American history the story is not complete without studying individuals like Mary McLeod Bethune.” I love this quote, it is so true. We learn about so many “significant” white people from history and rarely any black people. I thought it was really interesting that she was the only one in her family to receive an education and actually taught her family when she would come home. I think that historical figures like her should be included with the Eurocentric male figures that are always talked about. It is most definitely time for a change.

  4. One of the reasons I liked this article was because it’s so important when teaching history to include nonwhite perspectives. I’m not saying George Washington isn’t important, but it’s crucial to have information from different sources so why wouldn’t we learn from different minority groups. I had never heard of Mary Jane McLeod Bethune. It’s incredible that she went from teaching her family what she learned in school to being one of the first women presidents of a college. Not only that but it was a college that she helped to create. This is why I think it’s important to teach a diverse curriculum.

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