Mary McLeod Bethune, True Democracy, and the Fight for Universal Suffrage
Ida E. Jones
Mary McLeod Bethune — educator, club woman, and stateswoman — asserted the universality of equality in and through all things. Her contributions to the women’s suffrage movement were evident in her rhetoric challenging American society to become a true democracy, as well as in her utilization of institutional spaces to plan, strategize, and allocate resources. Although her early life was shielded from the caustic ugliness of racism and gender discrimination, she was keenly aware of Jim Crow’s vertical relationships between white and black, male and female, rich and poor, northern and southern, urban and rural. Her unique worldview informed her advocacy on behalf of Negro women and children throughout her life. Initially, she wanted to be a missionary for the Presbyterians in West Africa. Ultimately, she was rejected by the church in part due to her race, gender, and unmarried status.
When she undertook to redefine her career goal, she encountered Lucy Craft Laney (1854-1933). Like Bethune, Laney was a daughter of the South, a Presbyterian, and the child of formerly enslaved parents. Laney encouraged Bethune to make educating the youth her mission field. The damage caused by enslavement and widespread poverty in the post-emancipation South created the need for community institutions and structure. Laney believed that education paved the way to citizenship, stronger families, and better communities, thus elevating all Americans. Laney’s Haines Normal and Industrial Institute in Augusta, Georgia, provided a model for Bethune.
Through the work of eventually founding her own school in Florida, Bethune encountered the power of the ballot box. Despite being faced with the inequity of the state of Florida spending $11.50/year for white children and a mere $2.64/year for black children, she successfully opened the Daytona Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls in 1904, with six students – five girls and her son Albert.
Bethune recognized that these apportionments of state funding were regulated by elected officials who catered to their constituencies, which did not include African Americans, thus ignoring their needs. Through her school, she determined to begin to address those needs, especially for African-American girls. The school, soon re-named Daytona Educational and Industrial School, was serving 30 female students within the first year. It went on to thrive as an institution that not only taught girls to be self-sufficient and instructed them in more traditional domestic skills, but also had a rigorous, high school level academic curriculum in math, science, English, business, and foreign language courses.
It eventually merged with the boys’ Cookman Institute, forming the Bethune-Cookman College, a coeducational junior college that still exists as a four-year university today.
Bethune selected northern Florida for her school’s location because there were increasing numbers of African Americans migrating there, and others already prospering in the Daytona Beach area. Despite this growing African-American population or perhaps because of it, Bethune, arriving in 1900, encountered a racially hostile state. Florida had the highest lynching rate in the country, where over 260 black Floridians were lynched between 1882 and 1930. Nevertheless, black Floridians persisted in attempting to vote and to defend themselves and their communities from white terrorism when exercising the franchise. The black community linked political power with economic justice principally for the working class. As early as the 1880s, black women engaged in the political process through encouraging their men to register, vote, and form interracial alliances to better the opportunities for the laboring class. White conservatives ferociously beat back every effort; one important strategy used was to establish a one-party rule of state government. Florida’s 1885 Constitutional Convention also instituted a poll tax. However, in the first season of women’s suffrage, women were exempt from paying the poll tax but racial tensions remained high. It was in this atmosphere that Bethune followed Laney’s early advice to make educating the youth her mission field, and she worked tirelessly as an educator to prepare her students for life and the responsibility of the vote.
Concurrently with Bethune’s work as an educator, the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (NACW), founded in 1896, were spreading across America, unifying independent clubs and facilitating connections among African-American women. The NACW waged war against the multiple forms of injustice visited upon African-American women in general and the poor in particular. Their work, along with her own personal experience in founding her school, drew Bethune to them. Bethune’s initial contact with the NACW was through Elizabeth Carter Brooks, fourth national president (1908 – 1912). As a hallmark of her presidency, Brooks canvassed the country to inspect NACW programs and was responsible for establishing a scholarship at Bethune’s school. The women of the NACW impressed Bethune in part with their demeanor, decorum, and determination. In the membership were women such as Janie Porter Barrett, Mary B. Talbert, Margaret Murray Washington, Mary Church Terrell, and Ida B. Wells. These women were organized and impelled by their vision for the race. Their passion resonated deeply with Bethune. She became increasingly active in these important civic organizations, eventually emerging as a national leader.
Following her initial affiliation with the NACW and still living and running her school in Florida, Bethune also joined other African-American women such as Eartha M.M. White in the Florida State Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs. White, an activist in the established tradition of Floridian women, worked through the black women’s clubs to organize and educate African-American voters. Bethune joined the campaign and added a second prong to her mission field – universal suffrage — stating:
“Eat your bread without butter but pay your poll tax! Nobody ever told me to pay my poll tax. My dollar is always there on time. Do not be afraid of the Klan. Quit running. Hold your head up high. Look every man straight in the eye and make no apology to anyone because of race or color. When you see a burning cross remember the Son of God who bore the heaviest.” 
In 1912 Bethune attended the NACW meeting in Hampton, Virginia. At this meeting she delivered an address which was part biography and part a fundraising endeavor for her school. Throughout the meeting, the agenda addressed all aspects of discrimination African Americans encountered regularly, ranging from police harassment to lack of reliable employment opportunities. However, at the forefront of everyone’s mind was one of the hottest issues of the day – women’s suffrage. In 1912 only nine states allowed women to vote; and it wasn’t until 1919 that the 19th Amendment, nicknamed the “Anthony Amendment” would extend the franchise to women through passage of a federal amendment to the Constitution to be ratified by the states.
Having a political voice would enable African-American women to ameliorate the poor conditions of public schools, housing, and other social services. Politicians naturally catered to their constituency, and therefore, African Americans needed access to the vote in order to elect representatives who would acknowledge their needs for the community to thrive. The NACW had local and regional clubs throughout the country, along with smaller neighborhood groups to support the cause; however, their contributions were systematically stymied as many national suffrage organizations attempted to placate white supremacist southern suffragists. This did not impede the progress of Bethune in her pursuit of her own form of women’s suffrage. Keenly aware of her geographic location and the need for white patronage, she and others navigated a volatile minefield – successfully.
Dr. Rosalyn Terborg-Penn, a leader in suffrage scholarship and the author of African American women in the struggle for the vote, 1850-1920 (1998), argues that there were three generations of African-American suffragists. Bethune is in the third generation: 1900-1920. The third generation sought to build interracial coalitions in all regions of the country. However, the proliferation of African-American suffrage activity followed a different arc than that followed by white women. The ever-present threat in Florida to the African-American community fused all matters of access and equality into the larger pursuit of full citizenship, with the aims and intentions of lifting their community out of imposed ignorance and lack of equitable state funding into civic literacy and better wages:
“By the first decade of the twentieth century, the politicization intensified as a critical mass of African American women’s organizations developed to push for the enfranchisement of all Black women as a means to protect Black communities, and for the re-enfranchisement of Black men whose votes had been stolen from them.” 
Thus, Bethune’s activism through her school’s sprawling social engagement also provided interracial space for secret meetings and suffrage work. In 1920, she and Laney created the Southeastern Federation of Women’s Clubs which galvanized African-American women in all southeastern states. This important work continued to prove necessary even after the ratification of the 19th Amendment as the political climate throughout Florida and most of the southeastern region precluded scores of African Americans from voting. For African Americans in central and southern Florida, their hopes were virtually extinguished for the next four decades. In the face of this, Bethune continued her civic work in the NACW, becoming national president in 1924. Bethune’s vision for the NACW was one of true unity, bridging all prejudice from regional origin, and economic class differences.
Shortly after the passage of the 19th amendment Bethune encouraged African-American Daytonians to vote in the county elections. An alarming threat of terrorism against her campus from the Ku Klux Klan sought to silence Bethune. When she met the Klan marchers at the front of campus “with arms folded and head held high,” they left without incident. The following day Bethune led a group of African Americans to the polls where they were forced to wait the entire day before being allowed to cast their ballots. Bethune remarked “but we voted.” Dr. Audrey McCluskey dubbed Bethune as “politically ambidextrous,”  contributing to the women’s suffrage movement what she could in full understanding that her school and the lives of countless African Americans hung in the balance throughout the south where wanton violence, abrogation of federal laws, and cultural norms often won out over reason. Bethune implemented a strategy that used the black press, local and regional vigilance, along with a national organization headquartered in Washington, DC, as steps in the direction of becoming a national clearinghouse for African-American women. In her mind, disunity and factionalism bred contempt and hampered racial progress.
More than 30 years later, on September 6, 1952, Bethune penned an article “Women Should Vote in Tribute to Those Who Fought for the Ballot.” She was still arguing for unity, the end of prejudice, and economic equity among all citizens, all supported by universal franchise. In this article she extolled the tenacity of pioneering women who fought long and hard to “bring full citizenship to all the people.” African Americans still had decades of struggle ahead with the Civil Rights Movement and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and beyond to come close to the promise of the 19th Amendment, and Bethune recalled their suffragist history to inspire them. Once again following her lead, African-American women did persist and continue to make strides in political agency through voter education, protests, and direct-action campaigns. Bethune insisted it was incumbent upon modern women to ensure that the franchise “promot[ed] security at home, and mutual respect and peace among the peoples of the world.” 
Mary McLeod Bethune did not wield a picket sign or participate in the 1913 suffrage parade. She was crafting and modeling behavior for future women voters. On November 19, 1949, Mrs. Bethune was asked, “If you could live your life over what would you do?” Bethune responded, “Head straight to New York and run for Congress [or maybe a stint] in the diplomatic service.”  Profoundly aware of the impact voting and political office had within the country, she believed that principled voices — be they female or male — could bring about the victory of democracy over dictatorship. “The free ballot…universal adult suffrage [would allow African Americans the ability] to vote out all the advocates of racism and vote in those whose records show that they actually practice democracy.”  Her brand of gendered universal suffrage challenged “Negro women” on all levels and classes to march forward toward peace, justice, and democracy for all at the ballot box.
Front Row, left to right Margaret Murray Washington (Mrs. Booker T. Washington), Mary McLeod Bethune, Lucy Craft Laney, Mary Jackson McCrorey. Second Row, left to right Janie Porter Barrett, M.L. Crosthwaite, Charlotte Hawkins Brown, Eugenia Burns Hope. (Courtesy of Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University)
Dr. Ida E. Jones is the inaugural University Archivist for Morgan State University. She is the author of The Heart of the Race Problem The Life of Kelly Miller (2011); Mary McLeod Bethune, Activism and Education in Washington, D.C. (2013); William Henry Jernagin in Washington, D.C.: Faith in the Fight for Civil Rights in Washington, D.C. (2015); and most recently Baltimore City Rights Leader: Victorine Q. Adams, the Power of the Ballot (2019) which won the African-American Historical and Genealogical Society’s International biography book award. She curated an online exhibition for the National Women’s History Museum “Claiming Their Citizenship: African American Women From 1624-2009.” She is the former managing editor of the Negro History Bulletin 1999 to 2005. She is a former National Director of the Association of Black Women Historians 2011-2013. Jones has appeared on CSPAN, National Public Radio, BBC radio and in numerous publications. She is currently co-vice president of Baltimore City Historical Society and managing editor of the Gaslight BCHS’s newsletter. She is a newly appointed Board member of the National Collaborative for Women’s History Sites. She is an adjunct faculty member at Lancaster Bible College. Jones believes deeply in the words of Mrs. Bethune who said, “power must walk hand in hand with humility and the intellect must have a soul.”
Bethune, Mary McLeod. “Women Should Vote in Tribute to Those Who Fought for the Ballot,” The Chicago Defender (National Edition) September 6, 1952 pg. 10.
Hanson, Joyce A. Mary McLeod Bethune and Black Women’s Political Activism. Columbia, MO, University of Missouri; First edition (March 14, 2003).
McCluskey, Audrey Thomas. A Forgotten Sisterhood Pioneering Black Women Educators and Activists in the Jim Crow South. Lanham, MD. Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.
McCluskey, Audrey Thomas. & Elaine M. Smith (eds.). Mary McLeod Bethune Building a Better World. Bloomington, IN Indiana University Press, 1999.
Ortiz, Paul. Emancipation Betrayed: The Hidden History of Black Organizing and White Violence in Florida From Reconstruction to the Bloody Election of 1920. Berkeley, CA University of California Press, 2005.
Robertson, Ashley N. Mary McLeod Bethune in Florida Bringing Social Justice to the Sunshine State. Charleston, SC The History Press, 2015.
Taylor, Lois. “Would Head for Congress, Says Retiring National Council Head,” Afro American, November 19, 1949, p. 10.
Terborg-Penn, Rosalyn. African American women in the struggle for the vote, 1850-1920. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press; Second Printing edition (May 22, 1998).
Wesley, Charles H. The History of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs: A Legacy of Service. Washington, DC.: National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, Inc., 1984.
 Ortiz, Paul. Emancipation Betrayed: The Hidden History of Black Organizing and White Violence in Florida From Reconstruction to the Bloody Election of 1920. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press (2005), p. 194.
 Terborg-Penn, Rosalyn. African American women in the struggle for the vote, 1850-1920. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press; Second Printing edition (May 22, 1998), p. 82.
 McCluskey, Audrey Thomas. A Forgotten Sisterhood: Pioneering Black Women Educators and Activists in the Jim Crow South. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield (2014), p. 65.
 Bethune, Mary McLeod. “Women Should Vote in Tribute to Those Who Fought for the Ballot,” The Chicago Defender (September 6, 1952), p. 10.
 Taylor, Lois. “Would Head for Congress, Says Retiring National Council Head,” Afro American (November 19, 1949), p. 10.
 McCluskey, Audrey Thomas. & Elaine M. Smith (eds.). Mary McLeod Bethune Building a Better World. Bloomington, IN Indiana University Press (1999), p. 20.
This post was originally published by the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission (WSCC), and is republished here with permission. The WSCC is an agency of the federal government, and the publication of this post does not imply any type of partnership or relationship with the WSCC, and it does not imply WSCC’s endorsement of this outlet and its communications.