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Mary McLeod Bethune, known as the “First Lady of Negro America,” also sought to unite the African diaspora

When I first interned as an archives technician at the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House-National Historic Site—the DC home of the woman who founded Bethune-Cookman University—I didn’t see a strong connection between the life of the founder of the university and the rest of the African diaspora.

Many of the requests I received from researchers were for accounts of Bethune’s work within what is known as FDR’s “Black Cabinet,” an unofficial Black advisory group that helped raise awareness of issues affecting Black America. Or her role as founder of the National Council of Negro Women. Or her general involvement in Washington, DC, as a resident of Logan Circle, where she welcomed people from all over the world to NCNW headquarters.

But in the process of preserving the documents and retrieving them for scholars, I quickly began to see Bethune in a different light.

In reading her letters, diary entries, and notes from various meetings, I noticed that Bethune received awards in Haiti and Liberia. For my dissertation, I decided to examine her work abroad, and I discovered that she was more connected to the diaspora than I and many others had imagined.

That experience ultimately laid the foundation for my 2023 book, “Mary McLeod Bethune The Pan-Africanist.”

According to Nigerian historian P. Olisanwuche Esedebe, Pan-Africanism is a “political and cultural phenomenon that views Africa, Africans and African descendants abroad as a unity.”

“It seeks to regenerate and unite Africa and promote a sense of unity among the people of the African world,” Esedebe wrote. “It glorifies the African past and inculcates pride in African values.”

Bethune embodied the ideals of Pan-Africanism throughout her life.

A global perspective

This is evident in a speech she gave in 1926 as president of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs at the organization’s annual convention. In that speech, she challenged black women to unite with people of African descent around the world.

Specifically, she stated:

We must make this national body of women of color not only a national influence, but an important link between peoples of color around the world.

African identity

Bethune’s story begins in Mayesville, South Carolina, where she was born to formerly enslaved parents.

Her family taught her that her roots were in Africa. Throughout her life, she talked about how her mother was descended from a royal matriarchy.

She lived in South Carolina until she attended Scotia Seminary – now known as Barber-Scotia College – graduating in 1893. She then attended Moody Bible Institute and graduated in 1895. Her education prepared her to become a missionary.

Mary McLeod Bethune became one of the most influential black women of the 20th century. In 1904, she founded a small school for girls in Daytona Beach, Florida. That school later became Bethune-Cookman University.

While living in Washington, DC, where she went on to work in the Roosevelt administration and the National Council of Negro Women, she worked with Carter G. Woodson, the founder of what we now know as Black History Month, during her time as president of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History.

In 1935, Bethune founded the National Council of Negro Women, an “organization of organizations” to unite African American women’s organizations under one large umbrella.

The Mary McLeod Bethune Council House-National Historic Site was the organization’s first headquarters. It was purchased by the National Park Service in 1994.

The ‘First Lady of Negro America’

While browsing through the archives, I learned about Bethune’s role as the first African American woman to head a federal agency, which she did as director of the Division of Negro Affairs at the National Youth Administration. I learned how she secured jobs and crucial education funding for African Americans during the Great Depression.

She also worked closely with Eleanor Roosevelt to fight for the inclusion of African American women during World War II.

Two women in military uniforms talk to a woman in civilian clothes.Two women in military uniforms talk to a woman in civilian clothes.

It soon became clear why Ebony magazine proclaimed her the “First Lady of Negro America” in 1949.

Haiti’s highest honor

Traveling to Haiti in 1949 – where she received the Haitian Medal of Honor and Merit, Haiti’s highest award at the time – she visited orphanages, churches and historic sites to understand the needs of the people and the richness of the culture.

Bethune was often seen proudly wearing her Haitian medal. She wrote about her travels in The Chicago Defender, a national black newspaper.

She called for support for Haitian women’s suffrage. She also called on members of the National Council of Negro Women to help build orphanages in the country and actively raised funds to do so.

As I continued to research the archives, I discovered that Bethune had spent much of her life working to create solidarity among people of African descent. She traveled to places – including Cuba in 1930, Bermuda in 1931, Canada in 1945 and 1954, the Bahamas in 1953 – and forged relationships throughout the African diaspora.

As a daughter of Africa

In her writings, Bethune called Africa her homeland. She saw herself as a daughter of the continent. Whether it was at the founding of the United Nations in 1945, where she called for an end to colonization, or in the White House, where she pushed for an end to taxation of African Americans, the goal of freedom always stood first for her.

In 1952 she received the Star of Africa during her trip to Liberia. Created in 1920, the star was one of Liberia’s highest honors and was awarded to individuals who rendered distinguished service to the country or to Africa in general. This was a great honor, and she did not take it lightly. During the trip, she met women’s groups and visited local schools. She also attended President William VS Tubman’s lavish inaugural celebration.

The trip had special meaning for Bethune, especially because she had attempted to travel to Africa as a missionary at the age of 20 and was told by the missionary association that she could not do so because she was black.

At the age of 76, her dream finally came true. In her summary of the trip, she said: “I was thrilled to set foot on this soil of Africa that I have long dreamed of visiting – to return to my homeland.”

Bethune’s understanding of her personal connection to the continent and its people inspired her to challenge others to do the same. Although she was recognized as “First Lady of Negro America,” perhaps it is time to also recognize her as “First Lady of the African Diaspora.”

This article is republished from The Conversation, an independent nonprofit organization providing facts and trusted analysis to help you understand our complex world. It was written by: Ashley Robertson Preston, Howard University

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Ashley Robertson Preston is a former employee of Bethune-Cookman University and Bethune Council House.