In 1931, Mary McLeod Bethune helped to arrange a reading tour for Carl Van Vechten’s good friend, the poet Langston Hughes. The tour would take Hughes to many black colleges and universities throughout the south. In a letter to Van Vechten describing Bethune’s appearance at one such reading, Hughes wrote, “Mrs. Bethune is marvelous as mistress of ceremonies—a sort of black Texas Guinan joyfully clothed in African dignity, presenting myself, with a full orchestra and a hundred student voices singing Negro music as a setting for my poems.”1
Bethune was, perhaps, uniquely qualified to introduce Hughes to audiences for she had inspired his work “The Negro Mother.” Once, when Hughes closed a reading with this poem, Bethune was so moved that she jumped up from her chair and ran to the stage to embrace him.
By the time she arranged Langston Hughes’s visits to southern black colleges and universities, Bethune had worked as an educator for many years. She had, in 1904, founded the Dayton Normal and Industrial Institute, a school offering elementary and secondary courses for African-American children. Though the school started with only six students, and with so few resources that students sat on crates and used charcoal instead of pencils, Bethune’s efforts to raise funds and increase the student body enabled the school to thrive. Bethune designed the curriculum to focus particularly on educating black girls and providing them with practical training that would enable them to secure jobs after graduation.
Some twenty years after the school opened its doors, it merged with the Cookman Institute to form Bethune-Cookman College. Bethune was named president of the college, a position she held until 1942. Under her leadership and direction the school became first an accredited junior college, and later a four-year liberal arts college. Today, Bethune-Cookman College is among the largest of the United Negro College Fund colleges.
Though she is remembered primarily as an educator, Bethune’s influence extended far beyond the walls of her college. As an active advocate for the education of African Americans and for civil rights in general, Bethune was well known in political as well as educational spheres. She served two terms as president of the National Association of Colored Women and was founder and president of the National Council of Negro Women. She served also as vice-president of both the NAACP and the National Union League.
A woman of considerable political influence, Bethune served on presidential commissions under Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, and Franklin D. Roosevelt; she was a personal friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, and she met with President Roosevelt regularly throughout his presidency to discuss the needs of African Americans.
Mary McLeod Bethune was a commanding and important promoter of civil rights for African Americans, and the effects of her advocacy, especially in the area of education, cannot be overstated. “She is a power down here,” Langston Hughes wrote to Carl Van Vechten of her influence among the southerners he met on his reading tour; that she was also “a power” among her friends is evident in Hughes’s next sentence: “She sends her greetings to you; and commands that you visit her.”