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. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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. 

  10. 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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