Who is Mary McLeod Bethune? Teaching a More Multicultural American History

State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory. Accessed 19 June 2019.

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

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 MuseumMary 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

12 Comments

  1. This article was an interesting read. Many African American contributors are often overlooked in American History. I was astonished and pleased to read about an African American woman who was apart of Roosevelt’s cabinet in the 1930’s. That was a time when African Americans & Women were viewed as inferior and often didn’t have any political power. I am also amazed that she founded a University and served as a President (all in the 1930’s!) She is remarkable!

    • Hey MeKaisha. Thank you for your comment. I agree with what you have stated here “That was a time when African Americans & Women were viewed as inferior and often didn’t have any political power.” The time period made it difficult for African Americans and women to succeed. This makes her life even more remarkable.

  2. It makes me sad that we don’t study a more diverse history in our schools. I’ve honestly never heard of this lady and I didn’t know that there was a black cabinet for the president. The fact the she is African American and a Woman is probably why she’s not in history books. This is very unfortunate. I’m sure there are many more amazing women like her that have accomplished so much but they will never be recognized. When I become a teacher I want to break the standard history curriculum and incorporate a more diverse cultural history class.

  3. There is absolutely a eurocentric focus in the social studies curriculum taught in schools. Even now, I often read articles that contradict what I learned in high school social studies. Usually this involves relearning history, for example learning of yet another White person taking credit for the success of a person of color. I never knew who Mary McLeod Bethune was before reading this article. As such an important woman playing a huge role in American history, it’s unfortunate that I, among many others, have not heard of her. Diversity should be of utmost importance in teaching younger kids, for the reason of historical accuracy and also cultural representation.

  4. In response to the article, I also feel like a diverse curriculum is necessary to thoroughly teach all of history. Just recently I was researching the history of the Red Cross organization in my Community Nurse course and found that there were people of Color that played a significant role in the founding of many services that are still vital to people today. In the 1940’s the American Red Cross started a blood donation service for the U.S. military. The first request was for 20,000 units of plasma. It was Dr. Charles Drew; an African American renowned scientist, teacher, and surgeon, that discovered how to preserve blood plasma for the soldiers of WWII which lasted longer. He also organized America’s first large-scale blood blank. Along with Dr. Charles Drew, there are many African American founders and contributors to history that were completely left out of history teachings even though their contribution to our society was prodigious.

  5. I most definitely think that European history has been over emphasized for many reasons. I think the reason it is over emphasized is because most of history is told from the people who won. The people who mostly won was the people with power meaning the European culture, which is what continues to get passed down. I definitely enjoyed this read because it shows a different perspective on history.

  6. It is important to know about the cultural game changers in our history. Knowing the stories of those that rose to the occasion and changed their own world, that is really inspiring. History is always told from those that won the wars, so they also leave out political and social figures that don’t fit their model. This was a good read. It was refreshing to learn about someone new who did so much in her time.

  7. OMGOODNESS!!!! I loved this article!! I had not heard on Mary Jane McLeod Bethune until this point in my life. Why wasn’t I taught about her? And why isn’t she more known. When it all comes down to it, if you are an education major, this should be one of the first individuals that you talk about. After reading the article, it made me realize that while the curriculum is changing in various ways, we must make sure that we are continuously fighting for a broadened perspective on whow our world was created today.

  8. I really enjoyed reading this article. I always enjoy learning new things and this women was someone i had never heard of. It is also interesting to be able to view history from a perspective that is different from my one. It amazes me to think about the struggles that she had to overcome, and it is amazing to see what she managed to accomplish when the world must have been against her.

  9. This article absolutely fascinated me. However, it also saddened me. Mary McLeod Bethune was a remarkable, extraordinary woman. Why was she not in my history books? Serving on a president’s cabinet in a time where African-Americans were looked at as less than, not only did I not know this, but I never knew that there was a black cabinet for the presidents. Looking back on the teachings from middle-high school, I realize that the curriculum was definitely more European based and I do not understand why. It is important to teach everyone how diverse our past is. Life was not all about what happened during European history. There is such a large, diverse world out there that everyone should learn about and experience. They need to know about more people like Mary McLeod Bethune.

  10. It makes me wonder how much we are missing out on our diverse history in schools. I’ve never even heard of this lady until this article. It really makes you wonder what other powerful African American Women or Women in general our history books are missing. I think having children or young adults give a speech or presentation on people in history that aren’t in our history books is an incredible idea. Really makes you think about what we are missing in our education.

  11. I haven’t heard of her until now. This woman is extraordinary! She really served as president? The schools need to teach about her, it really should’ve been a must if she was in the cabinet. Does she not count because she was a black woman? I know that there is still sexism and racism, so it could be a reason its not in the books. Whatever the reason, im glad i read this informative article.

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