Honoring Mary McLeod Bethune and Eleanor Roosevelt

Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955) was one of the original civil rights workers. She was the 12th child in a family with 14 children. Only Mary and her two younger siblings were not born into slavery. She lived at a turning point in American History. Even though her parents and her older brothers and sisters had been slaves before the Emancipation, she became a pioneer of Black Rights, and an important part of the Black History of The United States. Her maiden name McLeod was taken by her father from his former owners, the McLeod’s. When he was freed – McLeod’s Sam became Sam McLeod. He and his family worked the 5 acres of land given to freed slaves. Mary developed a university and a hospital (Bethune-Cookman University and McLeod Hospital, both located in Daytona Beach, Florida), and she worked in the Franklin Roosevelt Administration.

Mary and Eleanor Roosevelt became good friends, they traveled to San Francisco for The Declaration of Universal Human Rights conference and helped write the document that became The Charter for the United Nations. Her accomplishments are even greater when one realizes she did them in the Jim Crow era.

“When I read Mary’s biography I came across a story from my childhood. The story was of a Black woman protectively standing in front of a school, saying ‘you will not burn my school, and if you do I will rebuild it, and I will rebuild it again and again’ – this lone Black woman faced down the mob of white men with torches and they went home without burning her school. I didn’t know her name at that point, but that true story made her one of my earliest heroes.”

– Mike Leckie

Guest of Honor

McLeod Bethune and Eleanor Roosevelt

Mary Bethune and Eleanor Roosevelt met at a women’s luncheon hosted by Eleanor’s mother in law, Franklin’s mother Mrs. Roosevelt. Mary had just returned from a long needed vacation and was in New York before traveling south again. Her friends and supporters had felt she was working too hard. They had talked her into an extended vacation to Europe, where her fame had preceded her. She was treated as a dignitary on the trip and even had a private audience with the Pope.

Before the luncheon guests were seated, Mary heard a couple of southern accents and froze. She looked around and saw two very nice southern ladies looking at her, talking behind their hands. Mary realized there was a problem. She knew that with the Jim Crow laws in the South these nice ladies were in a terrible situation. They had been invited to a lunch at Mrs. Roosevelt’s. This was something that would definitely add to their social standing at home, but there was a Black woman there as a guest. If they shared a meal with her, it was illegal by southern law and they would be shunned by their society when they returned home. Mrs. Roosevelt understood what was happening and called Mary over to sit at her right hand. By making Mary the guest of honor, the Jim Crow problem was solved. The ladies were allowed to eat with a Black “guest of honor.” When Eleanor saw what was happening, she sat on the other side of Mary and so began their long friendship.

“Belinda Harden, Mary Bethune’s great niece, was the acting director of the Mary Bethune Humanitarian Network in 2011 when they found my website online. After the first phone call I was instantly excited by the project. Belinda and I became friends and we discussed what we could do to further her great aunt’s reputation. We decided on a series of Bronze Awards to be given from the Bethune Humanitarian Network to notables involved in both The Women’s Rights Movement and The Civil Rights Movement. These awards became pieces of art and generated much excitement in the recipients and others. Unfortunately, my friend Belinda died before we could bring about her wish of a monument, on the mall in Washington DC, of Mary and Eleanor standing together. Belinda said she could not find another example of a Black woman and a white woman together as equals on a monument anywhere in the world. I still believe her proposal is a wonderful idea, bringing Mary McLeod Bethune into her rightful place of honor in the modern world as an early champion of civil rights. We should always remember and cherish this strong and remarkable woman.”

-Mike Leckie