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?

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


  1. This was a great article of someone who I have never heard of Mary Mcleod Bethune. In the history that was taught to myself growing up I have never heard of her; this is one reason I think the education in schools need to be more multicultural. This was a remarkable story of how she had to work hard and took an early interest in education. The fact that she could come home and educated her family what she had learned showed how she took education seriously. Bethune, sounded like a remarkable lady that maintained high standards and promoted the schools with tourist, donors, and to demonstrate what educated African Americans could do.

  2. I actually though I had heard of Mary McLeod Bethune before but after reading the article and googling her name, I am not so sure if I remember learning about her or maybe I had just seen the name of her school. Regardless, her story is an inspiring and insightful one that is on par or more impressive than most of the people you typical learn about (Eurocentric) in school growing up. The idea of being born into a difficult situation and being able to overcome it and will yourself into a position of a University President and to serve on a Presidential cabinet is a great story of what it means to be an American. But this gets overshadowed by her color, even to this day. She is a very interesting woman to learn about.

  3. This article proves that students need more multicultural education. I had no idea who Mary McLeod Bethune was and had never heard anything about her. While going through school, I can’t recall being taught about many people of color like Mary. It seems that everything has been clouded by white people and what they have done for our country while people of color have been pushed out of the way and ignored.

  4. People like Mary Bethune are getting overlooked. She started at one room black school house and turned it in to what it is today. It is now a well known university.

  5. I think this article is proof that we really need more multicultural education in our schools. Much like previous comments, I too had never heard Mary’s story until reading your article. Time and time again, history books tend to either whitewash history or ignore the success of African Americans as well as women. Mary’s story is that of both; she became such a phenomenal educator and even helped with FDR’s campaign among so many other things, yet I guarantee that 99% of people have never heard of her. As a society we should be striving to make others aware of those who deserve recognition, specifically those notoriously underrepresented.

  6. All at the same time this is an incredible story but also a disappointment that I have never heard this story before. This is a strong point to show that schools nowadays are extremely focused on Eurocentric topics, people and perspectives where these sorts of stories are left out. This is a perfect example of how minorities in the United States are oppressed to this day in that their history is being intentionally left out and substituted with the history of Whites.

  7. 7. Who is Mary McLeod Bethune? Teaching a More Multicultural American History
    Author- David Childs
    Response: Before reading this blog, I am going to be honest and say that this is the first time that I have ever heard of Mary Mcleod Bethune. It makes me wonder why american school systems are so broad in the range of what lessons they should be covering and why they aren’t diverse at all. But after reading this I have now realized on what type of role she had played in American History and how important what she did was. When you talked about how she had to work in the fields with her family at the young age of five, even after her parents were emancipated, it really brought me into the fact that this country is not always based off past presidents and not off of hard working people that strive to better for their people and for their families. And now when I look at Mary that is what I will think about.

  8. I find it very interesting the great amount that the Social Studies/ history curriculum leaves out– especially African American individuals. I honestly didn’t know anything about May Bethune until reading this article which is kind of disappointing. As a future educator, even though I’m becoming an English teacher, I wish to make sure that all people are recognized for what they’ve done for our country– despite their race or status. The history content for students should definitely be revised to be more inclusive, because without all information, students are missing out, to say the least.

  9. I am I huge history fan, but I have never heard of this woman until now. I think its sad that we solely focus on white European males when studying history, rather than looking at all of the important individuals that made a difference in history. As a future educator, its amazing to hear about what she did in education.

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