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Mary McLeod Bethune; a Missionary to Her Own People

Mary McLeod Mrs. Bethune's little school grew from 5 students to over 250 in just two years.

Updated Aug 28, 2023
Mary McLeod Bethune; a Missionary to Her Own People

The group of sweaty nine-year-old girls tramped up the back steps of a small school in late 1904. Nettie was at the front of the pack, since she was the bravest and had agreed to do the talking. Nettie walked quickly to their teacher and spoke the words she had practiced in the garden. "Mrs. Bethune, we finished the weeding, but we have a question."

Mrs. Bethune looked up from the heavy sack she was opening and smiled at their dirty knees and hands. "I'd love to hear your question Nettie, but you girls need to wash up first so we can peel these potatoes for supper."

Nettie glanced back at the others and mustered her courage. "That's just it, Mrs. Bethune. We're here to get book learnin' so we won't need to be no house servants. So why we need to do all this dirty work? I don't like scrubbin' floors, peelin' taters, and fetchin' water to boil clothes. The bucket's too heavy and that ol' black pot is too big to make full."

Mrs. Bethune smiled at the first students in her new school, the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Negro Girls. She recalled the heavy buckets of water she had carried to the thirsty cotton pickers when she was much younger than these girls. "Girls, there is no such thing as menial work, just menial attitudes," she explained patiently. "Remember our Bible verse from last week? For God so loved the world?" Eagerly the girls showed off what they had learned, "For God so loved the world, that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life."

"Did you hear those words, 'whoever believes'? 'Whoever' means you! God loves you so much he sent his Son to die for you. This is where your dignity comes from--not what you do or what you have. Now wash up and we'll start these potatoes. I have a story to tell you."

Mrs. Bethune's Story

As a little girl in South Carolina I was expected to help keep the water buckets filled for the thirsty cotton pickers. I was just five years old and the year was 1880--long before you were even born! My sister Rachel and I would fill our buckets at the well and then lug them down the long rows to the cotton pickers. One morning in early fall, I noticed the white children walking the dirt road to their schoolhouse, just across the field.

"Mary Jane! Why you stoppin'?" my sister Rachel whined, water splashing on her legs as she bumped me.

"Don't you see 'em?"

"See who?"

"Them white kids goin' to school." I pointed, trying not to attract momma's attention. "Wish I was white so I could go ta school 'stead of totin' water all day,"

"Mary Jane, Rachel, be 'bout your own business," Mother reminded us.

"We hurryin', momma," I said. I dared not stop and stare lest my mother sting my legs again with the wiry willow branch. But I could watch from the corner of my eye. As the thirsty workers drained the water pail, I secretly wondered what a joy it might be to turn the pages of a book and learn of things I couldn't imagine. "I'm gonna learn to read and write," I whispered to Rachel that day as we traced our footprints back to the well. "And one day I'm gonna teach others, too."

"How you gonna do that, Mary Jane? You ain't got no books and you ain't got no chalk," Rachel reminded me. "Anyways, who gonna teach you?"

"I don't know right now, but it's gonna happen, you just watch, Rachel. You just watch and see."

My Own School

When I was seven years old, the Mayesfield Mission School opened for the children of freed slaves. It was nothing like the white kids' school, but that didn't matter. "I told you I was gonna learn to read and write," I reminded Rachel as we walked the long dusty road home from school.

"So you did, Mary Jane," Rachel admitted, kicking a pebble as she strutted.

"Anyways, it sho beats totin' water or pickin' cotton all day!"

I worked hard and soon my teacher, Mrs. Wilson, took notice. When it was time for graduation, Mrs. Wilson was allowed to choose one student to go to the Scotia Seminary for Girls on a full scholarship. Mrs. Wilson chose me to go to that beautiful place!"

Little Nettie was impressed. "Is that where you learned to teach?"

"Yes, that's where I received my first teacher's license. But my heart was in missions work. I wanted to share the Gospel with our brothers and sisters in Africa. That's why I went on to the Moody Bible Institute for 2 more years of school."

Nettie's eyes widened in admiration. "Africa! Have you been to Africa?"

"Well, not exactly. God's plans were different than mine. The mission board turned me down, so I began teaching. That's when I realized there are plenty of people right here in America who don't know about Jesus!"

Mrs. Bethune looked at the poor black girl with love in her eyes. How could she help the girls understand that though they were getting an education, they must work hard and count it a privilege.

"God called me to start this school to teach you, Nettie! But I need to teach all of you--your head, your heart, and your hands!"

"I just want to learn in my head," said Nettie. That's what I like best!"

"I like book learning, too, Nettie, but we must be prepared for all sorts of work. That's why I teach your hands."

"Like peelin' taters?" asked Nettie.

"Now you're catching on," said Mrs. Bethune.

"But the most important thing I teach is your heart. God loves you, Nettie. No matter what kind of work you do or what color you are. He loves you and He wants to guide your life."

"Mrs. Bethune?" said Nettie.

"Yes, dear. Do you have another question?"

"No'm. I just wondered if you want us to carry in some water now to cook the taters in?"

"That would be lovely, Nettie. Thank you very much!"

Mary's School Lives On

Mrs. Bethune became a successful businesswoman and an advocate for African-American rights. She served on many national boards and was an advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Her little school grew from 5 students to over 250 in just two years. Financial support came from various generous individuals as well as through the labors of the girls themselves.

The school is now known as Bethune-Cookman College and serves about 3,000 students from all over the world. With a motto of "Enter to learn, depart to serve," the school continues to shape young people for Christian service, just as Mrs. Bethune did with her first class of 5 girls over 100 years ago.

Make It Real! Questions to make you dig a little deeper and think a little harder.

1. What did Mrs. Bethune want to do after graduating from Moody Bible Institute? How did she become a missionary to her own people?

2. What were the three parts of Mrs. Bethune's teaching? Why were all three important?

3. How are you learning through your head, your hands, and your heart? If you are not growing in one of these areas, what can you do about that?

4. Do you think children in Mrs. Bethune's school worked harder than children in your school? Why or why not?

5. Do you ever think of some kinds of jobs as more important or more prestigious than others? What about the people who do those jobs? How does God see people who do jobs that no one else wants to do?

Suggested reading:

Defeat of the Ghost Riders by Dave and Neta Jackson (Trailblazer series), Bethany.

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Mary McLeod Bethune by Eloise Greenfield (Crowell Biographies)

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Photo credit: © Getty Images/digitalskillet

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