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

24 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.

  12. Not only did this article introduce me to Mary Bethune but it also reestablished the importance of branching out from what the narrow minded history books may specifically direct your attention to. From reading the comments I understand that I am not the only one who has not heard of Mrs. Bethune and her marvelous impacts, and that is, of course, a shame. We, as future educators, should all learn from this moment and let it impact our future lectures in the classroom. As a future science teacher, I plan on seeking out those which have been lost in time, either due to their gender or the color of their skin. We have come too far as a nation to continue to let this be the norm in classrooms. 

  13. It’s a shame that this woman isn’t taught all over. She’s very influential and inspirational. I hope Bethune Cookman University is spreading the message of Mary McLeon and she starts becoming taught more universally. I would have been interested in hearing more about influential individuals in high school. Thank you for sharing her wonderful story.

  14. Throughout my years in school I have learned about many people in history, but I do not recall a time hearing this woman’s name. I was amazed that she was the first one in her family to receive an education and worked her way up to being invited as a member to Franklin Roosevelt’s Black Cabinet. Her entire history amazes me because she had done so much. She is inspirational, and definitely a woman who should be mentioned.

  15. Mary Jane McLeod Bethune is not talked about at ALL in most public and private schools across the nation. The curriculums so often turn a blind eye when it comes to POC and will only emphasize the male European figures, ignoring anyone that isn’t white or a male. It has taken years to start teaching Harriet Tubman across school districts nationwide. We must understand that African-American history is American history.

  16. I agree that schools tend to focus on European American males when talking about our country’s history. This ensures a lack of understanding of our history because other important historical figures that aren’t white or male are completely forgotten and omitted. Mary McLeod Bethune is only one example of this even with all of her work towards educating African American girls. This is why her story should be discussed not only in schools but in other settings as well.

  17. As many replies have already pointed out, I have never heard of this woman until now. I absolutely believe that many history classes have a Eurocentric focus. I studied very few non- European figures in all my years of schooling. I think Mary Bethune’s story is very inspirational and can be very helpful for young learners. She rose above the circumstances of her childhood and became an important advocate who changed the lives of many. It is a great reminder that anyone can rise above the hard times in their life and do great things. As a future music educator, I may not cover biographies of people like Bethune, but I will be sure to create a culturally diverse curriculum. I will have students sing and study music of many different cultures, and I will have them study prominent non-European composers. I hope that doing so will make my students feel inspired, as I felt reading about Mary Bethune.

  18. It seems like every year I continue my education, there are numerous individuals who were so key to developing our nation that I have simply never heard of. Mary McLeod Bethune is another one of those individuals. I understand that most of the time, educators have little leeway or room to introduce topics and individuals outside of the curriculum that they are instructed to teach, but the fact that individuals like Bethune are never mentioned in that curriculum is an awful thing. It is sad that education is just now being required to be “diverse”, when someone like Bethune deserves to be in the curriculum just as much as anyone else.

  19. When history is taught, no matter where you are, there are often parts that are left out or not represented. Diversity is largely a part of our history as well as today, and skipping over any group of people is a disservice. Mary McLeod had an interesting life of firsts as she paved a path for others behind her to follow. Without learning about or recognizing members of history and the impacts they made, we are missing significant pieces of our beginnings of how we got to where we are now.

  20. Before college, there were three African American people who I could remember being taught about in Social Studies/World History/U.S. History: Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, and Rosa Parks. I did not know who May Bethune was until reading this article. The lack of information being taught about other races and/or cultures in history classes is shocking considering how big of a part they played in U.S. History. Along with women in general. There are very few women talked about in history classes as well. History consisted mostly of learning the names of white men. It is important for students and people in general to be knowledgable about all history and that is very lacking in schools.

  21. 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.

  22. 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.

  23. 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.

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