Bethune became a persuasive advocate and a great educator; she learned her first lessons in a school taught by a melanated missionary from the north.
This teacher helped her immensely and she went on to study at a seminary in North Carolina before going to what is now called the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago.
Upon completing her studies in 1895, Bethune was thwarted in her desire to serve as a missionary to Africa.
And so she went back down to teach, first at the Haines Normal and Industrial Institute in Augusta, Georgia, and later at the Kendall Institute in Sumter, South Carolina, where she met her husband, a businessman.
The couple moved to Savannah, Georgia, became parents, and then relocated to Florida, where she had excepted a teaching position.
By 1907, separated from her husband and living in Daytona Beach, Bethune had established her Daytona Educational and Industrial Institute.
After more than a decade of careful economy and persistent public relations, the Institute granted diplomas to 47 women in 1920.
It expanded in the 1920s, initiating a junior college program in 1924 and later merging with the Cookman Institute, a men's college from Jacksonville, to form Bethune-Cookman College.
Bethune served full-time as college president from 1904 to 1942, and later as President Emeritus until the end of her life.
Her lifelong concern about the welfare of black women with reflected in her presidency of the Florida Federation of Colored Women's Club from 1917 to 1924.
She became president of the Florida Association of Colored Women (NACW) in 1924, which claimed 10,000 members at the time.
During the four years of her presidency, Bethune led efforts to press for black political action, children's welfare, and networking with a national and international women's organizations.
In 1935, because she believed the NACW had become too locally focused, Bethune founded the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), serving as its president until 1949.
The NCNW worked to unite all black women's organizations to target racial segregation and published the African-American Women's Journal.
Working with other civil rights and educational association at the time, Bethune developed an acquaintanceship with Eleanor Roosevelt and was appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt to the National Youth Administration (NYA), a 1935 new deal program of youth employment.
Bethune is credited with establishing weekly meetings of all blacks serving in the new deal programs -"Roosevelt's Black Cabinet" - to solidify a push for civil rights in employment and government facilities. When the NYA was discontinued in 1943, Bethune became a special representative of the U.S. State Department at the conference in San Francisco that led to the 1945 founding of the United Nations.
To Frederick Douglass is credited the plea that, 'the Negro be not judged by the heights to which he is risen, but by the depths from which he has climbed.' Judged on that basis, the Negro woman embodies one of the modern miracles of the New World.
100 years ago she was the most pathetic figure on the American continent. She was not a person, in the opinion of many, but a thing – a thing whose personality had no claim to the respect of mankind. She was house-hold dredge, – a means of getting distasteful work done; she was an animated agricultural implement to augment the service of mules and plows in cultivating and harvesting the cotton crop. Then she was an automatic incubator, a producer of human live stock, beneath whose heart and lungs more potential labors could be bread and nurtured and brought to the light of toilsome day.
Today she stands side by side with the finest manhood the race has been able to produce. Whatever the achievements of the Negro man in letters, business, art, pulpit, civic progress and moral reform, he cannot but share them with his sister of darker hue. Whatever glory belongs to the race for the development unprecedented in history for the given length of time, a full share belongs to the womanhood of the race…
By the very force of circumstances, the part she has played in the progress of the race has been of necessity, to a certain extent, subtle and indirect. She has not always been permitted a place in front ranks where she could show her face and make her voice heard with the effect… [But] she has been quick to seize every opportunity which presented itself to come more and more into the open and dive directly for the uplift of the race and the nation. In that direction, her achievements have always been amazing…
Negro women have made outstanding contributions in the arts. Meta V. W. Fuller and May Howard Jackson are significant figures in Fine Arts development. Angelina Grimké, Georgia Douglass Johnson and Alice Dunbar Nelson are poets of note. Jessie Fausett has become famous as a novelist. In the field of Music Anita Patti Brown, Lillian Evanti, Elizabeth Greenfield, Florence Cole-Talbert, Marian Anderson and Marie Selika stand out pre-eminently.
Very early in post-emancipation period women began to show signs of ability to contribute to the business progress of the Race. Maggie L. Walker, who is outstanding as the guiding spirit of the Order of Saint Luke… in 1902… went before her Grand Council with a plan for a Saint Luke Penny Savings Bank. This organization started with a deposit of about $8000 and $25,000 in paid-up capital, with Maggie L. Walker as the first Woman Bank President in America. For 27 years she has held this place. Her bank has paid dividends to it stockholders; has served as a depository for gas and water accounts for the city of Richmond and has given employment to hundreds of Negro clerks, bookeepers and office workers…
With America's great emphasis on the physical appearance, a Negro woman left her wash-tub and ventured into the field of facial beautification. From a humble beginning Madame C.J. Walker built a substantial institution that is a credit to American business in every way.
Mrs. Annie M. Malone is another pioneer in tis field of successful business. The C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company and the Poro College do not confine their activities in the field of beautification, to race. They serve both races and give employment to both…
When the ballot was made available to the womanhood of America, the sister of darker hue was not slow to seize the advantage. In sections where the Negro could gain access to the voting booth, the intelligent, forward-looking element of the Race's women have taken hold of political issues who with and enthusiasm and mental acumen that might well set worthy examples for other groups. Oftimes she has held the struggle toward moral improvement and political record, and has compelled her reluctant brother to follow her determine lead…
In time of war as in times of peace, the Negro woman has ever been ready to... [serve]... for her people's and the nation's good... During the recent World War… she… pleaded to go in the uniform of the Red Cross nurse and was denied the opportunity only on the basis of racial distinction.
Addie W. Hunton and Katheryn M. Johnson gave yeoman service with American Expeditionary Forces...with the YMCA group...
Negro women have thrown them selves how heartedly into the organization of groups to direct the social uplift of their fellow man… One of the greatest achievements of the race.
Perhaps the most outstanding individual social worker of our group today is Jane E. Hunter, founder and executive secretary of the Phyllis Wheatley Association, Cleveland, Ohio.
In November, 1911, Miss Hunter, who had been a nurse in Cleveland for only a short time, recognizing the need for a Working Girls' Home, organized the Association and pre-paid to establish the work. Today the Association has in a magnificent structure of nine stories, containing one hundred thirty-five rooms, offices, parlours, a cafeteria and beauty parlour. It is not only a home for working girls but a recreational center and ideal hospice for the Young Negro who is living away from home. It maintains an employment department and up-to-date camp. Branches of the activities of the main Phyllis Wheatley are located in other sections of Cleveland, special emphasis being given to the recreational facilities for children and young women of the vicinities in which the branches are located.
In no field of modern social relationship has the hand of service and the influence of the Negro women been felt more distinctly than in the Negro orthodox church… It may be safely said that the chief sustaining force in support of the pulpit and the various phases of missionary enterprise has been the feminine element of the membership. The development of the Negro church since the Civil War has been another of the modern miracles. Throughout its growth the untiring effort, the flagging enthusiasm, the sacrificial contribution of time, effort and cash earnings of the black woman have been the most significant factors, without which the modern Negro church would have no history worth the writing...
Both before and since emancipation, buy some rare gift, she has been able… to hold onto the fibres of family unity and keep the home one unmpaired whole. In recent years it has become increasingly the case where in many instances, the mother is the sole dependence of the home, and single-handed, fights the wolf from the door, while the father submits unwillingly to enforced idleness and unavoidable unemployment. Yet in myriads of instances she controls home discipline with a tight rein and exerts a unifying influence that is the miracle of the century…
The true worth of the race must be measured by the character of its womanhood…
As the years have gone on the Negro woman has touched the most vital fields in the civilization of today. Wherever she has contributed she has left a mark of a strong character. The educational institutions she has established and directed have met the needs of her young people; her cultural development has concentrated itself into artistic presentation accepted and acclaimed by the meritorious critics; she is successful as a poet and novelist; she is screwed in business and capable in politics; she recognizes the importance of uplifting her people through social, civic and religious activities; starting at the time when as a "mammy" she nursed the infants of the other race and taught [them] her meagre store of truth, she has been a contributing factor of note to interracial relations. Finally, for the past century she has made and kept her home intact - humble though it may have been in many instances. She has made and is making history.