Podcast Episode 65: A Cornerstone of Civil Rights: Mary McLeod Bethune

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In this episode of Talk With History, Scott and Jen explore the remarkable life and contributions of Mary McLeod Bethune, a cornerstone of civil rights in American history. They visited the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House in Washington, DC, and learned about her accomplishments.

From her humble beginnings as the 15th of 17 children born to former slaves, she pursued education and founded a school in Florida. Bethune became a prominent advocate for African American women’s rights, working closely with Eleanor Roosevelt and President Franklin D. Roosevelt. She played a crucial role in handpicking the first 40 African American women to join the army, leading to the establishment of the 6888th Postal Battalion during World War II.

Join Scott and Jen as they delve into the inspiring life of Mary McLeod Bethune and her lasting impact on civil rights and equality.

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A Cornerstone of Civil Rights: Mary McLeod Bethune

Jenn: They established the APO, which we now know if you’re 

Scott: Oh, they, actually like the, yeah. Oh wow.

Jenn: they established this APO system, which makes it easier to disseminate mail.

Yep. And then when they are done in England, they move on to France

[00:00:16] Introduction

Scott: Welcome to Talk With History. I am a host Scott here with my wife and historian Jen. 

On this podcast, we give you insights to our history inspired world travels YouTube channel journey, and examine history through deeper conversations with the curious, the explorers, and the history lovers out there. 

[00:00:36] HistoryNewsletter.com

Scott: Now Jen, before we start tonight, I need to ask you a question.

Did you know. the first ever successful rebrand in history. Was figured out by Frederick the Great in 1756,

Jenn: Only because you told

Scott: that’s right. I did tell you because it’s in our newsletter. So we go into how this ruler had to outwit his people just to keep them from starving in our most recent walk with History newsletter.

So if you’re interested in that kind of stuff and you want a little bit more history, you can visit history newsletter.com and sign up for free for a monthly roundup of interesting history articles. Videos and podcast recommendations. That’s history newsletter.com.

[00:01:18] Mary McLeod Bethune

Scott: All right. So we went to Washington, DC not too long ago, visited some friends, and we went over, based on the recommendation from one of our listeners to the National Historic, it’s like a national park.

Place for Mary McLeod Bethune. So who’s Mary McLeod Bethune, and why’d we 

Jenn: Sure. So we went to the Mary McLeod Bethune council house located at 1318 Vermont Avenue, and we went there because she is just, She’s amazing.

African American woman in American history. She did a lot of things that people don’t really know. And even when we met with the National Park Service Guides there, they’re surprised how people don’t know who she is and because of all the stuff that she’s done.

Scott: And to be honest, we didn’t So we had actually gone over there. Assuming we were going to learn more about the six Triple eight.

So the six triple eight is was brought up on our radar Tyler Perry is making a movie about the six Triple eight and the six Triple eight was an Army World War ii, army B Postal 

Jenn: of all African American women

Scott: of all African American women. Tyler Perry’s making this movie.

And so somebody brought it up to us in a comment, said, Hey, you guys should go check out. house that kind of covers the six Triple eight, and it didn’t really cover the six triple eight at all. It was more about Mary McCloud Bethune, who was instrumental in creating 

Jenn: Yes. So she is, started the head, the National Council of Negro Women.

That’s right. And it’s very interesting how these blocks get put into place for her to be influential during this time. 

She’s born July 10th, 1875. So she’s born in the late 18 hundreds.

So her parents are former enslaved and they end up being sharecroppers, and she’s like the 15th of 17 children. It’s crazy. But she is very smart, even as a child. And so they’re, she’s the one that, that they push towards education and she gets a college education and she goes down to Florida and she starts a school in Daytona for African American girls.

it’s there that she starts her work and her influence. She goes to a woman’s rally, like a woman’s meeting and she’s alive during the time of women getting the right to vote. That’s right. But we talk about this before, just because women got the right to vote doesn’t mean all women got the right to vote.

Scott: Yeah. Remind me when, what years those, the suffrage movement was.

Jenn: The suffrage movement is a very long time. It’s about 1880s, all the way to the right to vote in 1920. Okay. But


during, but women, but African American women are not part of that conversation. And that’s what she goes to a rally and she gets very upset that African American women aren’t being represented.

And she kindies a kindred spirit in Eleanor Roosevelt, who also feels the same way. That you can’t be just representing one.

Group of women, when you ask for women getting the right to vote, it needs to be all women so they become friends. And so in 1935 when Roosevelt is president, Eleanor is very influential in you would like to have this lady as a advisor for African-American women, for African Americans, just in general diversity, influence, representation.

And so he, he does put her on his council.

Scott: That’s right. And I was very I honestly was pretty surprised by that, FDR is given a lot of credit as this president who carries was in office for quite some time, but to have that recommendation to him and think about Eleanor Roosevelt she really pushed the 

Jenn: Yeah, 

Scott: We, talked about in tu with the 

Tuskegee Airmen 

Airman. She had the Tuskegee airmen like fly her around when nobody there expected or wanted that to happen. She’s Nope, you’re gonna take me up. We’re gonna fly around. So she does that. She probably walks back to, gets back to the White House after this rally and tells her husband and she’s I met someone, she needs to be on your And he’s probably just Yes, dear.

Jenn: Yeah. So it’s in 1935. She founds she founds and becomes the first president of the National Council of Negro Women.

And that’s the same year President Roosevelt brings her to Washington as special advisor on Minority Affairs. And like you to say with Eleanor Roosevelt, she’s very influential in all people who are underrepresented. Like she’s gonna push for women to fly during the war. She pushes for African American men to fly during the war, and now she’s pushing for African American women to be represented in the war effort as well.

And that’s where Mary McLeod Bethune is gonna be her connection to the six triple 


[00:06:19] Mary Bethune and the 6888

Jenn: So that’s where it comes in. So when you look up six triple eight. DC with, like we did and her house came up. This is the connection because she personally chooses the first 40 African American women


go into the army during the 


Scott: Yeah. So it, that was one of the things I thought that was really cool.

It’s, the six triple eight, there’s a reason that they’re making a movie about it. There’s a reason that Tyler Perry’s that they’re getting some pretty big name actresses their story is pretty incredible. But when you trace that further back, which we are want to do here on Walk With History Mary McLeod She was the one who advocated, Hey, no, women need to be a part of this and African American to serve. And she p and she personally handpicked the first 

Jenn: so she handpicked the first 40.

And think of it a lot like when we did the Tuskegee Airmen, right? Like the reason why these Tuskegee airmen were so effective as pilots is cuz they’re the best of the best. They’re making it so hard for these men to get into the flight program. They have to be college educated. They have to have proven this, they have to be physically fit once those men are meeting all those wicked. And they go through flight training. They’re great pilots because they’re the best of the best. And the same thing is true for these 40 women that she’s choosing as these first 40 representation into the army for African American women. These are graduate student level educated women.

Scott: Yeah.

And I’m glad you brought that up, Keith, because there’s a couple really classic pictures.

If you look up The six.

8 88 688.

Jenn: 6,000,

Scott: Battalion. So it’s six triple eight. That’s the easier way to look it up. But if you look up the six triple eight, there’s a couple very classic pictures find in black and white the African American women standing in formation being inspected major charity Adams. Now major Charity, Adams I, if I remember correctly, I read that she was actually like, She had her master’s or she was like, like more highly educated than the 

Jenn: She had her master, she was studying her master’s and it was the school that shall not Ohio 

State. Ohio State. Yeah. 

Scott: too

Jenn: So she’s actually the first African American woman to receive an Army And 

Scott: I just thought was so cool.

Jenn: And 

she’s gonna be the commander of the six 

Scott: eight, 

Jenn: she’s hand chosen by Mary McLeod That’s what’s so cool about it

Scott: So if you look at. Our video the thumbnail I tried to bring all the it’s hard to do ’em, but this I show charity Adams, inspecting 

six triple eight. And then on the other side it’s Tyler Perry.

So it’s then and now, and then Mary McLeod Bethune kind of because it really was and all the other things that we’ll talk a little bit more about. But I, we wanna have, Time on this podcast to cover everything that she did is incredible.

[00:09:28] WWII and the 6888th Postal Batallion

Jenn: So let’s talk a little bit about the six triple eight.

Then we’ll circle back about the house and what the house, and then we’ll talk more about Mary Cloud Beth’s life. Okay, 

so the six triple eight, just so we have an understanding of what they are. They were brought together because of this huge backlog of mail service member mail during World War ii.

65,000 pieces of mail that never got delivered, warehouses full of mail in England and France. And so they established the six triple eight in March of 1945. So if you think. The end of the war is coming, although people don’t know that. And charity Adams is selected as their commander in actually February of 45.

So she gets these women together, they get over to Birmingham, France in March of 1945. And immediately they this 850 of them, they separate male. They get into these warehouses and they start to separate mail into A, B, C, and D levels of where it’s going. And the mail has been kept in these warehouses.

Some of it has been destroyed by rats. Christmas 

Scott: been

there for years.

Jenn: and so they repackaged that mail and it’s freezing cold, and they’re wearing like, Ski clothes and fatigues and they work three rotating eight hour shifts seven days a week. And what they were told was gonna take ’em six months.

It took ’em three months. Yeah. And they got all that mail out and delivered. They established the apo, which we now know if you’re 

Scott: Oh, they, actually like the, yeah. Oh wow.

Jenn: they established this APO system, which makes it easier to disseminate mail.

Yep. And then when they are done in England, they move on to France to another, again, warehouse full of mail.

Told it’s gonna take ’em six months to do, take some, three months to do, and they’re able to disseminate this mail quickly and effectively. And what’s interesting about the six triple eight, which I wanted to say too, is They’re very self-contained. Battalion. 

Scott: They were, there’s 

Jenn: no male counterpart.

Usually there’s a lot of male counterpart when you have a female battalion.

Scott: But they did all the 

Jenn: They did all the pieces. They were their own mps. Their own chaplains, their own M W R, so their own pao. So they’re doing their own dances and their own mess cooks. They’re very self-contained battalion.

So you think this is all African-American women who are very much a self-contained And what this does is with all this


and people who are very skeptical of their ability, It shows how effective they are and just how well oiled their machine is to get this all done. And I know you think maybe male, wait, what’s the significance of mail?

[00:12:14] Significance of Mail in the Military

Jenn: We have talked about this before as service members

and people who fought in World War II and war in general. You don’t. No. The end of your time. Yeah. You’re being drafted to war and the end of your time is you fight till you win or you fight until you are killed. So that’s basically what happens.

And so people are in fighting for years, and so when they’re getting packages in mail I always say you reminded of what you’re fighting for.

Scott: And it’s really your only tie these folks weren’t getting Not with everything 

Jenn: going on 

Scott: so mail was even when we were in the that was like one of the best right days that the mail was coming in and you had. a care package sent you a bunch of junk food and magazines.

Jenn: Magazines, DVDs, back in the day,

Scott: And that was so great. That was such a spirit

Jenn: was so great. I know. And people would send you cards and pictures and just all those things that you would pass around and show each other because your package lifts up. Other people as well. And so for them to get all of this stuff out and like I said, even the Christmas packages that had been destroyed, they repackaged and make sure they still got to the service members.

So what they did for morale, This camp can’t be measured, and I think that’s very important to bring up. So that’s about the six triple eight. So when you see the show just the movie, just remember it’s very self-contained. They’re gonna start the a p o system. They get out there at March in 1945.

They stay out there for about a year. It’s disbanded in March of 1946

[00:13:58] How Mary Bethune ended up in DC advising Presidents

Scott: We’ll go go back to Mary McLeod.

And how she ended up in DC because she didn’t originally live there. I think you, you talked about how she lived in Florida.

Jenn: She lived in Florida. So Roosevelt wanted to bring her up to be on his council for diversity affairs.

And so she moves into that house that is the house for the National Park Service in 19 43. Okay.

Scott: Okay.

Jenn: And we, I had asked the questions well, how. What kind of neighborhood was this? Because this is a nice Victorian house and he is oh yeah, people don’t really like her here. She had a hard time because it’s a nice area of dc but she lived there for six years and that house was the headquarters of the Council for Negro Women, and it’s, it’ll stay the headquarters until 1966.

Scott: Yeah,

So even after, I think she passes 

Jenn: She passes may 18th, 


Scott: It,

stays headquarters and later on actually used for some pretty significant 

Jenn: Yes, I I know it in 1966, it’s, it stays the headquarters for the National Council of.

Negro women, but it’s used to help plan the march on D.C. 

Scott: That was 

Jenn: And when you think of the march on DC I’m talking about Martin Luther King and the I have a Dream speech. So they use this house, so if you wanna visit this house and the table there is where they say people met and they talked about the, everything they discussed, the music and the other speeches that’ll happen, and the other events that they’ll 

Scott: yeah. all the logistics,


go into planning a big march like that, it’s not, people just don’t show up for had to plan it in

Jenn: had to plan it so that the march on Washington was planned in the house. so the house was also. It had a chandelier from the White House. That’s cool. That she received from Truman, I believe.

And then if you go upstairs, you see her bedroom at her office and you see like a big working room cuz she ran the council there. And then on the third floor, it was basically a safe house.


Scott: Yeah. They, it wasn’t open

Jenn: Wasn’t open for the public. That’s where the National Park Service offices are. But I found it so interesting.

She ran a safe house for African American women. They could come anytime and stay there, and she kept no record of who stayed. And that’s why the National Park Service can’t tell you whoever stayed there, but there were always women there and able to use it to get back on their feet or to get away from abusive relationships, whatever they needed that was available to them 

[00:16:28] Multiple Legacies

Scott: The more I read about Mary McLeod Bethune was I was just I just my jaw kept dropping the floor each time I read more about her.

She was so influential and did so much. She even established a pretty well, established college in Florida.

Yeah, and I

think you even pointed out that,

She, in, it’s either in Congress or the, Congressional buildings. In the Capitol buildings.

There’s two statues that represent each state 

And she be, they made her one of the

Jenn: For Florida.

For Florida, yes. Her and her and her college robe and and cap, but .

She, so when I said in 1904, how she established that school for girls in Daytona Bethune Cookman College, and at the time this is in Jacksonville, and the school became accredited and it officially changed his name to Bethune Cookman College, and Bethune became the first African American woman to serve as a college 

Scott: it, she did so many firsts pushed the envelope to start so many It really was incredible. Talk about someone who was born, Not long after the Civil War 1875 and then living right up to really the kind of heart of the Civil Rights Movement, right up to it. And she was this kind of pivotal was around for all these events and established colleges and schools and was the first.

African American college president 

Jenn: Yes. 

Scott: the first one to get African American women in to the armed services was the it was just absolutely 

Jenn: It’s incredible. So after she’s done in DC and she retires from that being the president of the Council of Negro Women, she goes back to Florida and she rec, she retires basically at the college, becomes president of that college.

And then she re spends the remainder of her life there at her home and basically And it’s now known as the Mary Bethune Foundational National And that’s where she’s 

Scott: Yeah, it was it’s the, We’re making a big deal about her because I think she is a big deal. But it’s funny because the site this National Park site, it’s not very well developed we were very surprised. And even

Jenn: Needs more recognition. ‘

Scott: em the park 

Jenn: working on. Yes. 

Scott: They even said Hey, please come in and film. 

And this site is small, but it’s right in the heart of dc. It’s not hard 

Jenn: get to.

It’s not hard to get to, and I think it’s such a big part of American History. Plus it’s a great place for research because the National Council of Negro Women contains the National Archives for Black Women’s History, and it’s the only institution in the United States solely dedicated to that purpose.

So that is all housed there. So that’s another thing, the archive, the research And I felt the be just being in that room and they had some artifacts in there and they were gonna put more stuff in there, but you’re around her artifacts. She has a cane given to her by Roosevelt.

Like you’re around the artifacts there in that house. So it’s very. Cool to visit. It’s free to visit it’s National Park Service, even if you wanna see the table where they plan the march on Washington. But when the movie comes out, I think people will wanna know more connection to the building blocks to put that battalion in place to do the amazing thing they did during World War ii.

And she is the cornerstone

[00:20:00] Who would play her in a 6888 movie?

Scott: . And I saw on I was trying to pull thought I saw Oprah and she would be the perfect person to play Mary McLeod Bethune. She would she’s not sorry, Oprah if you’re ever watching this, So I don’t think you’re at the point where you’re gonna be playing someone who’s serving overseas as part of this World War II unit, she, would, most likely,

Jenn: would be great to be on the council, choosing the women to be the first 40,

Scott: a hundred percent she could be very excited to I’m not sure when, 

[00:20:41] Summary

Scott: I hope you enjoyed our exploration of the remarkable life and enduring impact of Mary Born during a time of racial segregation, Bethune defied the odds and became a trailblazing educator, political leader, and civil rights Bethune N’S influence extended beyond as she advised multiple US presidents on minority affairs and became a powerful equality and small part of her impact resulting the first African American women serving in during established the National Council of Negro Women leaving an indelible mark on the Civil Rights Mary McLeod, Beth’s legacy inspires us to challenge barriers, fight for equal strive for a better So join us next time as we continue exploring the lives of more remarkable individuals shaped our And thank you for listening to the Talk with this History podcast.

If you’ve ever wondered if there was a way to support this show, you can now do that over@talkwithhistory.com slash support. You can leave a one time tip with a comment on your favorite episode or support with a couple bucks a month, and we will absolutely give some podcast shout outs to our supporters out there.

Just head over to talk with history.com to show your support today. We rely on you, our community to grow and we appreciate you all every day. We’ll talk to you next 

Jenn: Thank you.

Published by Scott

The mountains are calling, let me grab a jacket and my kids.

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