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‘God Leads the Way, Mary’

‘God Leads the Way, Mary’

US Capitol statue unveiling is latest honor for educator and Moody alumna Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune
  • Jamie Janosz
  • October 13, 2022

On July 13, a marble statue honoring Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune (1875–1966)—renowned educator, civil rights leader, and notable Moody Bible Institute alumna—was dedicated at the US Capitol Building’s Statuary Hall in Washington, DC.

Bethune’s statue is one of two representing the state of Florida. She became the first black person, male or female, to be honored in the Statuary Hall collection. She is the first Moody Bible Institute graduate to receive this honor.

The 11-foot-high statue is adorned with a graduation cap and a stack of books signifying Mary’s lifelong commitment to education. In one hand, she holds a walking stick she received from Franklin Roosevelt, one of several US presidents to whom she served as an adviser. In the other is a black rose, a symbol she used to teach her students about their value in God’s eyes.

A humble beginning

Mary was born July 10, 1875, in Mayesville, South Carolina, to former slaves Samuel and Patsy McLeod. The 15th of 17 children, Mary was the first child born in freedom. While working in the fields, she dreamed of things other children took for granted, like stacks of books and glass windows.

A local missionary invited the family to send one of their children to attend school, and Mary was chosen. A fast learner, she taught other children to read as well. When another sponsor offered to finance further education, Mary attended Scotia Seminary (high school) and then Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. Dr. Mary Cloutier, professor of Intercultural Studies at Moody, said it was probably at Scotia that Mary first discovered her calling to missionary service and that sparked her interest in attending Moody.

Class of 1895 Seminary photo

Mary McLeod Bethune pictured with classmates at Moody Bible Institute in 1895.

Answering God’s call

While her class photo depicts one black face among many white students, Cloutier said, “What you don’t see in her class photo is that a lot of the students were immigrants and refugees. Many barely spoke English and were just as disadvantaged as Mary.”

As a student, Bethune toured with a gospel team as their chief vocalist and sang at Pacific Garden Mission. According to one biographer, the young woman would often go into the “slums of Chicago alone to evangelize.” But shortly after her arrival at Moody, the 19-year-old received a letter from a Presbyterian mission board saying her application for missionary service had been denied.

Cloutier, who wrote a highly regarded paper on Bethune, said Bethune had deeply impressed both the African missionaries and the sending board, but a recent controversy had resulted in the board’s decision to stop sending black missionaries to the field. In response, Bethune wrote, “Christ has called me to the work. His command is to ‘Go.’ I am so glad He has counted me worthy to lay this Great Command upon my heart. I am so glad He did not designate any particular color to Go.”

Cloutier said, “Mary had the willingness to deal with people of her time respectfully yet honestly. She might have been discouraged, but she did not give up on her God-given calling. She simply took all her training and funneled it into teaching children. She glorified God with it and produced lasting fruit on American soil.”

God leads the way

When the door to Africa closed, Mary taught at missionary schools in Augusta, Georgia, and Palatka, Florida. But it was Daytona Beach, Florida, that Mary would call her “new Africa.” Seeing the desperate need for children of black railway workers to receive an education, Mary started her own school with just $1.65, purchasing a broken-down cottage and carving the name “Faith Hall” over the doorway.

Mary McLeod Bethune with her students

Bethune (far right holding a Bible) leading her Daytona Beach girls‘ school in 1905.

“Mary wasn’t afraid of small beginnings,” said Dr. Lisa Smith, program head of Elementary Education at Moody. “She was the first in the family to get an education. When she started her first school, she made something out of nothing. She used whatever she had to get what she wanted. That’s powerful. God began to open doors through that.”

But even as her school grew, racial tensions increased. Mary faced obstacles, including a nighttime standoff with the Ku Klux Klan. She ordered that lights across the campus be turned on so the men could not hide. She told her students to sing, “Be not dismayed, whate’er betide, God will take care of you.”

“We sang them right off campus,” Mary said, “and the next day we all voted, too!”

Mary forged ahead, founding a hospital to provide service to the black community and offering adult education classes because learning to read would gain access to vote.

“Often I thank God for my rugged ways,” she would later reflect. “Have not my people come over a way that with tears has been watered? But we are stronger today through the struggles with overcoming. I am stronger today because as I have taken the steep, hard way, I have taken time to be faithful, persevering, and hopeful.”

Adviser to presidents

Bethune statue unveiled

The statue of Bethune that now resides in Statuary Hall of the US Capitol in Washington, DC.

Mary’s work on behalf of African Americans received national attention. She was invited to a Child Welfare Conference held by President Calvin Coolidge. In 1934, President Franklin Roosevelt created a position for her at the White House. He said of her, "Mrs. Bethune is a great woman. I believe in her because she has her feet on the ground—not only on the ground but in the deep, plowed soil."

Mary developed a lasting friendship with the Roosevelts. From 1936 to 1944 she served as the director of Negro Affairs for the National Youth Administration and as special adviser to the President on Minority Affairs. She was the special assistant to the Secretary of War for Selection of Candidates in 1942, helping open the door for black women in WAACS and WAVES. She also organized one million Negro women into the National Council of Negro Women.

In 1952, Mary was invited to travel to Africa as part of a special team of US representatives for the inauguration of their president. Where once she had been turned away, she now went with great honor. The school she founded still exists today as Bethune-Cookman University, one of the nation’s historic black colleges.

Mary McLeod Bethune’s legacy was honored at the ceremony to install her statue in the nation’s capital. A host of government officials and Bethune-Cookman University leaders were in attendance to applaud her example of faith and perseverance. A few weeks later, a bronze statue of Mary was unveiled in her honor in a ceremony on August 18 in Daytona Beach, ensuring that Mary's legacy of faith, devotion, and courage will impact future generations.

As Mary once said, “Even now I can hear my mother saying, ‘God leads the way, Mary.’ This held me fast through the years, and in all humility and sincerity I have endeavored to follow. The faith and determination which sustained me then helped me to make my dreams come true.”

About the Author

  • Jamie Janosz