June 24, 1936: Mary McLeod Bethune officially joined the NYA Washington staff as director of the Division of Negro Affairs. As such, she became the 1st African-American female federal agency head. She was appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Mary Jane McLeod Bethune was a educator and civil rights leader best known for starting a school for African-American students in Daytona Beach, Florida, that eventually became Bethune-Cookman University and for being an advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Born in South Carolina to parents who had been slaves and having to work in fields at age five, she took an early interest in her own education. With the help of benefactors, Bethune attended college hoping to become a missionary in Africa. When that did not materialize, she started a school for African-American girls in Daytona Beach. From six students it grew and merged with an institute for African-American boys and eventually became the Bethune-Cookman School. Its quality far surpassed the standards of education for African-American students, and rivaled those of schools for white students.
Bethune worked tirelessly to ensure funding for the school, and used it as a showcase for tourists and donors, to exhibit what educated African-Americans could do. She was president of the college from 1923 to 1942 and 1946 to 1947, one of the few women in the world who served as a college president at that time.
Bethune was also active in women’s clubs, and her leadership in them allowed her to become nationally prominent. She worked for the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, and became a member of Roosevelt’s Black Cabinet, sharing the concerns of black people with the Roosevelt administration while spreading Roosevelt’s message to blacks, who had been traditionally Republican voters.
Upon her death, columnist Louis E. Martin said, “She gave out faith and hope as if they were pills and she some sort of doctor.” Her home in Daytona Beach is a National Historic Landmark, her house in Washington, D.C. in Logan Circle is preserved by the National Park Service as a National Historic Site, and a sculpture of her is located in Lincoln Park in Washington, D.C.
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