Famous People Mini-Unit

Famous Person:

Mary McLeod Bethune

Related Topics:     Education
                                    Civil Rights
                                    Political Issues
Grade Level:            4th/5th
Author:                      Monica Sue Murdock
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  Background Information References Objectives Time Allotment Resources Needed Procedures Assessment Appendix

Background Information:

Early Years

As the fifteenth of seventeenth children, Mary Jane McLeod was the first free child born to Samuel and Patsy McLeod on July 10, 1875. Before the Civil War, her parents were slaves, and many of their children were sold into slavery before their eyes. Once the war was over, the Thirteenth Amendment of the Constitution abolished slavery. Samuel and Patsy were free, but worked for their ex-master until they could afford to buy land of their own from him. In Mayesville, South Carolina, they built a three-room log cabin on their five acres of hilly land which they called "The Homestead."

Beginning at a very young age, Mary helped work in the fields planting, weeding, and picking cotton. She also assisted her mother in part-time laundress work for white families. On one occasion, Mary waited outside for her mother to deliver clean pressed clothes to a household. She began playing with the owner's granddaughter, and noticed a book by the dolls. As she reached for it, the white child snatched it from her, and scornfully said, "Put that book down! You can't read! You're black!" Mary deeply desired to read, and decided that she would learn how because it represented freedom and success in life. This was almost impossible at the time, since there was no black teacher or school in Mayesville.

Finally Emma Wilson opened the only school for African American children in Mayesville, The Presbyterian Mission School. Mary's parents needed her in the fields, but they agreed to let her attend school despite their struggles. Mary had to walk five miles one way to a poorly equipped school, yet that never stopped her from learning reading,writing, arithmetic, and new songs. Later she began to teach her family the skills she had gained. After graduation, Mary returned to work in the fields even though she desired to further her education.


Mary's wish for more education was granted by Mary Crissman, a Quaker seamstress from Colorado who wanted to help educate a black girl. Not knowing who she was investing scholarship money into, Crissman only requested that the girl selected would be one who would do well. With her education financed, Mary studied at the Scotia Seminary in North Carolina. She was impressed with the pleasures of rooming with only one girl, eating with settings of tablecloths and silverware, and especially having white and black teachers mingle together. Reflecting back on this experience, Mary once wrote, " The white teachers taught that the color of a person's skin has nothing to do with his brains - and color, caste and class distinction are evil" (Chorlian, pg 7, 1996).

This was not the case when Mary next attended the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. She was the only black student there, and often received degrading treatment. Mary was becoming a new and different person than the young girl who left the cotton fields. She was not afraid to take a stand for her rights, and was very proud of her accomplishments thus far in life.

When Mary was young she listened to her grandmother's stories about Africa and the Bible. This sparked an interest in her to become a missionary for her people in Africa. But her application was denied and caused "the greatest disappointment" of her life. Returning home with feelings of failure, Mary completed her education with uncertainty of what to do next.

At home Mary found that her first teacher, Miss Emma Wilson, was only allowed, by the school board, to hold school two months out of the year for blacks. Determined Mary decided she would open the school until Miss Wilson returned. As Mary taught she realized her talents and desire for missionary work could be used right at home. She assisted Miss Wilson for awhile, and then taught at the Haines Institute in Georgia. This was a private school for African American children started by Lucy C. Laney. Her work then inspired Mary to start her own school.

Greatest Accomplishment

Mary taught at the Haines Institute for many years, and then moved to North Carolina where she taught at the Kendall Institute. It was there she met Alburtus Bethune, a fellow teacher. They got married, moved to Georgia, and had a son, Albert. With a continuing dream to start her own school, Mary soon moved to Daytona, Florida, where schools were needed for the growing black population. Alburtus did not share her dream, and they separated in 1907. He died in 1919.

Starting her dream with only $1.50, Mary found a two story, rundown house for rent. She paid a down payment of fifty cents and then eleven dollars each month. Starting a school was not easy. Mary rummaged through garbage dumps, begged for, and collected crates, lumber, old furniture, lamps, washtubs, broken mirrors, dishes, nails, coins,charcoal, and anything else she could get her hands on for supplies. To earn money, Mary made sweet-potato pies and sold them to tourists and construction workers. Riding her old rickety bike through construction camps, she recruited African American girls to attend her school.

Finally, on October 3, 1904 the Industrial Institute for Negro Girls opened with six students, five girls and Albert. They were taught "in the head, hand, and heart," or otherwise how to think, work, and have faith. The girls raised money for the school by selling cooked goods and singing for donations. In two years, there were two hundred and fifty students and four teachers. Night classes were also available to adults so they could learn how to read, write, and do arithmetic. As the school expanded more room and supplies were need. Bethune became a master of getting donations which helped buy new land and build a new school. In 1923, an all male school for African Americans joined with Bethune's institute tocreate the Bethune-Cookman College which still exists today.

Later Life and Achievements

Mary McLeod Bethune was not only a wonderful educator, but she was a great organizer and political activist. While she ran her school, Bethune also organized mission schools which taught camp children and their parents. A hospital was established for blacks by Bethune until a public one was opened to them. This was not all. As a respected member of her people, Bethune convinced many blacks to vote regardless of the persecution against them. Bethune was also involved in many national organizations that tried to improve the lives of black people and women.

Bethune moved onto responsibilities that affected more people in the nation. President Roosevelt often relied on her knowledge and wisdom, and named her Director of Negro Affairs for the National Youth Administration which found employment for youth during the depression. Mary Bethune was appointed many titles and positions on a National level by other presidents, too. She impacted many lives as she worked to improve their rights and lives of blacks and women.

Mary McLeod Bethune died on May 18, 1955. Her life was full of dreams that were successful and beneficial to her life and many others. The Bethune-Cookman College stands as a monument for her life and accomplishments today.


Chorlian, Meg. (Ed.). (1996). CobbleStone: Mary McLeod Bethune. Peterborough, NH: Cobblestone Publishing, Inc.

Nathan, Dorothy. (1964). Women of Courage. New York, NY: Random House.

Overton, Ann Keller, and Jeanne Cunningham James. (1989). Our World: A Planning Guide for the Kindergarten and First Grade Curriculum. Lewisville, NC: Kaplan Press.


1. Students will be able to describe the contributions made by Mary McLeod Bethune and how they affected the lives of others.

2. Students will be able to identify educational or political issues that have an effect on people in their school or community.

3. Students will be able to identify one solution to an issue that causes concern for their society.

4. Students will be able to identify personal qualities or an accomplishment they would like to be known for in the future.

Time Allotment: About a week.

Resources Needed:

Copies of the four sections in the Background Information


1. Jigsaw Puzzle The students will learn information about Mary McLeod Bethune through the Jigsaw procedure. Students are divided into four Expert groups in which they will individually read the material in their assigned section. When done reading and taking notes in their journal on the section, the students will share in their Expert groups the information learned to assure they all understood the material.

Next the students are divided into Teaching groups. These will include one person from each Expert group to teach about the material read. While taking notes in their journals, the students will learn about all the information needed to be covered.

The final stage of the Jigsaw method is the Question and Answer period. Each Teaching group is numbered and the students in each group will count off 1-5. The teacher asks a question about the information read, and the groups get a minute to make sure everyone knows the answer. Then a pair of dice is rolled. The first number that appears represents the team member with the same number and the second number applies to the team number. That person in the team answers the question. When a 6 is rolled or there are not enough people for the other numbers, the team gets to pick who will represent them with an answer.


2. Think-Pair-Share Mary McLeod Bethune was an educator, organizer, and political activist. She addressed many concerns that dealt with education and politics. Students will be asked to think of educational or political issues that might affect their own lives or others in their school and community. Such issues might be over flowing schools, year round school, non-available after school programs, curriculum concerns, funds, religion in schools, student rights, etc. With a partner, they will share their ideas and thoughts concerning the issues. Then as a class, the students will make a list of issues that have been mentioned, and record them in their journals.


3. Service Project Since Bethune was able to solve many problems among her people, the students will pick an issue of concern discussed above and find a solution for it. First brainstorm and make a list of solutions that will help solve the problem. Possible ideas may include: a letter to personnel, newsletter to parents, speeches, posters, or fund raisers. When they plan the project, students should consider why this issue is a problem. In their journals, they will record their feelings, thoughts, obstacles, or progress throughout the service project.


4. Learning Journal This journal will be used throughout the unit to record learnings, feelings, thoughts, issues discussed, and progress. It will be a form of assessment to show participation and comprehension.

At the conclusion of this unit, the students will identify and explain any personal qualities or accomplishments they would like to be known for in the future by their classmates. This will be submitted in their journal and shared with classmates if desired.


1. The students will take notes in their focus journals on the information learned about Mary McLeod Bethune during the Jigsaw process. This will show accountability for their own learning. Informal assessment will also be made during the experience by observing the comprehension and progress made as the students participate and answer questions.

2. During the Think-Pair-Share, students contributions will be informally assessed through observation and journals checked for record of issuses discussed.

3. Anecdotal records will show each student's willingness to participate in the class discussion and involvement in the service project. Their journals will also be looked at to assess their overall feelings and comprehension of the project.

4. Assessment of their journals will show proof of overall learning. Their final entry of their contribution to life will also be assessed.


Jigsaw Questions

Describe what Mary's childhood was like.

Explain why Mary wanted to learn to read.

What was the first school like that Mary attended?

How was Mary able to attend college?

Mary had a dream that ended up being her "greatest disappointment." What was it?

Describe the greatest accomplishment achieved by Bethune.

What were some of the hardships Bethune struggled through to establish her own school?

Name a few of the other accomplishments Bethune achieved in her life time.

What stands as a monument toward Mary McLeod Bethune today?