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From Our Collection: Celebrating Mary McLeod Bethune

Mary McLeod Bethune

“Invest in the human soul. Who knows, it might be a diamond in the rough.”

These are the words visitors to the U.S. Capitol will now see at the newly installed statue honoring Mary McLeod Bethune. Today’s unveiling symbolizes Bethune’s life’s work as an American educator, Civil Rights activist and humanitarian, and makes her the first Black American to have a state-commissioned statue to reside in the National Statuary Hall of the United States Capitol.

Photo from the Mary McLeod Bethune Statuary Project.

Bethune’s figure brings with it another first and a last. Weighing more than 6,000 lbs., the 11-foot statue was sculpted out of the last piece of statuary marble from Michelangelo’s quarry in Italy. It was created by Nilda Comas, the first Hispanic sculptor to create a statue for the National Statuary Hall Collection.

The cap and gown represents Mary McLeod Bethune’s commitment to education, her signature walking cane (a gift from President Franklin D. Roosevelt) honors her close relationship and work with the President, and the black rose is a tribute to her students who she lovingly referred to as her “black roses.”

Born Mary Jane McLeod on July 10, 1875, in Mayesville, South Carolina, the daughter of formerly enslaved parents and the first in her family to read and write, Bethune won scholarships to attend Scotia Seminary in Concord, North Carolina (now Barber-Scotia College), and the Institute for Home and Foreign Missions in Chicago (now the Moody Bible Institute).



Mary McLeod Bethune with students at her Daytona school in 1905. From the Library of Congress collection.


McLeod married Albertus Bethune in 1898, and in 1904, the couple moved to Daytona Beach, Florida.

It was there that Mrs. Bethune founded her own school: a one-room schoolhouse known then as the Daytona Normal and Industrial School for Negro Girls before merging with the Cookman Institute for Boys in 1923. This combined school later became the historically-black college now known as Bethune-Cookman University.

Today there are over 20 schools nationwide that bear her name.



Mary McLeod Bethune and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt speaking before an NYA meeting. Photo from the Library of Congress collection.

In 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Mary McLeod Bethune as the director of the National Youth Administration’s Division of Negro Affairs, making her the first black woman to head a federal agency.

With fellow educators Frederick E. Patterson and William J. Trent, Mrs. Bethune co-founded the United Negro College Fund in 1944.

She also founded the National Council of Negro Women and was an active member of the National Association of Colored Women until her death in May of 1955.

The Library of Congress National Audio-Video Conservation Center is home to historic film, video and audio highlights featuring Mary McLeod Bethune, and they provide a wonderful glimpse into the life of this extraordinary woman, educator and civic leader.


In 1945, Mrs. Bethune was the only Black woman, and one of eight women, to join 850 delegates at the San Francisco conference that resulted in the signing of the Charter establishing the United Nations. You can view the announcement in this “All-American News” broadcast.

“All-American News” was the first American newsreel programming produced for a Black audience. Made in the 1940s and 1950s, they were originally intended to encourage Black Americans to participate in and support the war effort, and to reflect a Black American perspective on world and national events.

The Library of Congress National Screening Room offers a vast collection of “All-American News” reels, including footage of Mary McLeod Bethune’s 70th birthday and her fundraiser for the National Council of Negro Women.

“America’s Town Meeting of the Air” featuring Mary McLeod Bethune. There are over 170,000 NBC Radio discs at the Library of Congress National Audio-Video Conservation Center.

The Library of Congress Recorded Sound division features original recordings of NBC Radio’s public service project, “America’s Town Meeting of the Air.”  This program attracted up to 3 million listeners a week, and transcripts of each event were distributed to radio audiences, teachers and schools nationwide. The format included a panel of speakers followed by a question and answer segment from the audience.

The November 23, 1939 episode “What Does American Democracy Mean to Me?” features Mary McLeod Bethune. The program aired on Thanksgiving night, twelve weeks after the start of World War II, and also featured California congressman Jerry Voorhis, social reformer and refugee from Nazi Germany Alice Salomon, and Italian-American writer Pietro di Donato.


Before the development of magnetic recording tape, radio programs were archived on 16” lacquer coated discs, recorded on cutting lathes while programs were in progress. Each side of a disc held approximately 15 minutes of audio. There are over 170,000 such discs in the NBC Radio Collection at the Library of Congress alone.

The American Archive for Public Broadcasting is an initiative to digitally preserve and make accessible public broadcasting radio and television programming, ensuring its collection, management, preservation, and access. In August 2013, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting selected WGBH and the Library of Congress as the permanent stewards of the American Archive for Public Broadcasting collection. To date, almost 40,000 hours of historic public broadcasting radio and television content has been digitized and preserved.

Here are a few of the programs that feature Mary McLeod Bethune:

  • Idella Bodie’s SC Women: The Story of Mary McLeod Bethune (South Carolina Educational Television, 2008).
  • The Palmetto Special: Mary McLeod Bethune (South Carolina Educational Television Network, 2008).
  • Special Program Commemorating Negro History Week (Part 1 of 2)–The Glory Road: Mary McLeod Bethune (Pacific Radio Archive, 1966).
  • Black Heroes (KUNM Radio). – George Washington Carver; Mary McLeod Bethune; Langston Hughes; Paul Cuffe; James Weldon Johnson; Sojourner Truth; Duke Ellington; Harriet Tubman; Frederick Douglass; William Whipper.

Mary McLeod Bethune was also a featured guest on NBC Radio’s “This is Your Life”, hosted by Ralph Edwards. The series was broadcast on NBC radio from 1948 to 1952, and on NBC television from 1952 to 1961.  Both formats featured surprised guests and took them through a retrospective of their lives in front of an audience, including appearances by colleagues, friends, and family. The Library of Congress National Audio-Video Conservation Center is home to the March 15, 1949 episode featuring Mrs. Bethune and a special guest appearance from Eleanor Roosevelt.

There is so much more to learn about the life of Mary McLeod Bethune and her contributions to our Nation’s history.  Don’t hesitate to  Ask a Librarian about the availability of our collection.  Before you plan to come in and view or listen to any collection items, please get in touch with our reference staff in the Moving Image Research Center and the Recorded Sound Research Center.








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