Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune was never one to shy away from a challenge. As an African American woman living at the turn of the 19th century, Dr. Bethune faced a tremendous amount of adversity and setbacks, which she met with a fierce entrepreneurial spirit and a knack for innovative thought. To this day, her legacy resonates throughout the Daytona Beach area.
“The spiritual and educational creed expressed in Dr. Bethune’s life and in her ‘Last Will and Testament,’ reflect the core ideas that guide Daytona Beach,” said Mayor Derrick Henry. “Her legacy challenges us to live out our values both individually and collectively. She serves as the moral compass that binds us together and inspires us to reach for our destiny.”
Although Dr. Bethune is best known as an educator, public figure in government, and Black women’s club activist, she was also a successful businesswoman, who made a substantial impact on the economic success of early Daytona Beach. Her personal and financial investments not only laid a foundation of success for others but also ensured fiscal security for her and her family.
And like the other aspects of her life, Dr. Bethune’s entrepreneurial spirit centered on improving the lives of those in Black communities. In addition to establishing businesses to serve the people, she also invested in businesses. Here is a look at some of her more lucrative efforts.
Dr. Bethune played a notable role in the insurance business in North Central and Central Florida. Noting the lack of insurance companies catering specifically to the Black community, Dr. Bethune lent her support to two companies, according to historical accounts.
Dr. Bethune held capital stock in the Afro-American Life Insurance Company of Jacksonville and is noted as a co-founder of the Central Life Insurance Company of Tampa. Her association with Central Life Insurance began in 1923, when 13 men, led by Tampa realtor and mortician Garfield D. Rodgers, offered Dr. Bethune the opportunity to join them in the insurance business.
This opportunity proved most lucrative for Dr. Bethune. Using the extra earnings from selling insurance, Dr. Bethune was able to pay off the mortgage on the “Homestead,” the estate in which she was born and raised in Mayesville, SC and buy a modern home for her parents.
As mentioned earlier, Dr. Bethune was an activist who advocated for the civil and personal rights of people of color. While she made her voice heard on a national level on many occasions, in the early 1940s, she took on a local cause – the lack of access to Daytona’s public beaches for people of color.
Although beaches had been open to all races during Daytona Beach’s founding years, by the 1940s, a series of Jim Crow laws banned African Americans from most of Florida’s beaches where whites could go.
In 1943, working with a group of wealthy African American investors, including George Engram, Sr., owner of Engram Electric, the Bethune-Cookman University founder purchased a 2.5 mile strip of land in New Smyrna Beach, 23 miles south of Daytona, for $200,000. She and Mr. Engram envisioned a resort town where African Americans could gather in peace and enjoy the surf and sun, all the while experiencing economic empowerment as property owners.
The beach was incorporated as Bethune-Volusia Beach, with Dr. Bethune serving as its first president. Shortly thereafter, the land was subdivided into 800 properties and sold to African Americans who wanted to live beachside.
In 1951, Welricha Hotel, in which Dr. Bethune held partial interest, was opened to accommodate vacationers and provide recreational facilities to African American residents. Advertised as “a playground controlled exclusively by our race,” the property offered a resort-style setting where blacks could enjoy “recreation and relaxation without humiliation.”
Dr. Bethune visited the motel frequently with her family. After spending a July 4th holiday at the motel, she wrote, “On the Fourth of July, we sat here in this beautiful beach motel, which we have called ‘Welricha,’ facing the waters of the great Atlantic Ocean on the one side and the north arm of the Indian River on the other.”
Bethune-Volusia Beach became a popular beach destination for African-American families, annually drawing thousands of visitors from all over the country and remained so until segregation ended in the 1960s.
Today, lots that sold for as little as $590 in 1947 are now filled with multi-million-dollar homes.
Investments in others
Throughout her life, Dr. Bethune saw promise in a myriad of Black business owners and invested in their endeavors accordingly. Among these entrepreneurs was Sarah Breedlove, better known as Madame C. J. Walker, who, like Dr. Bethune, was born to previously enslaved sharecroppers. Madame Walker is credited for developing and marketing a line of cosmetics and hair care products for Black women, thus making her the first recorded, self-made female millionaire.
Dr. Bethune was instrumental in the promotion of a Madame Walker’s beauty care line and in a letter to the beauty mogul, dated April 5, 1917, praised the benefits of the products on her own as well as her students’ hair and requested that one of her girls participate in Madame Walker’s beauty training course at her New York College.
She was also instrumental in the success of the aforementioned Engram Electric, contracting most of the electrical projects for Bethune-Cookman University with the company.
Closer to home, Dr. Bethune founded Bethune Mortuary in the 1940s. Operated by her son, Albert McLeod Bethune, with his wife serving as mortician, the funeral home proved to be a lucrative business for more than 25 years.
“She dabbled in many different businesses,” said Dr. Tasha L. Youmans, Library Dean/Chief Librarian at Bethune-Cookman University. “She saw a need; she established a business to meet that need.”
In honor of her many contributions to Daytona Beach, the country and especially the Black community, an 11-ft, white marble statue of Dr. Bethune, created by master sculptor Nilda Comas, will be erected at the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall later this year after making a stop in Daytona Beach.
Dr. Hiram Powell, interim president at Bethune-Cookman University, reflects on this momentous occasion and the impact the daughter of former slaves made not only on B-CU but also on the people of Daytona Beach and its surrounding communities:
“There is a photo of Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune hanging in my office, and every day, at the end of the workday, as I’m leaving, I turn and look at this photo. I ask myself, did I truly do all that I can do today for this institution? If I cannot answer yes, I get back to work. That is the influence that Dr. Bethune has had on me, on Bethune-Cookman University, on the Daytona Beach community and [on] the world. Her drive to change the world coupled with her unceasing passion to educate young African Americans and to live a life of service unto others is what lives inside of me and keeps me moving forward.
“As Dr. Bethune’s statue, on its journey to statuary hall in Washington DC, makes a stop in Daytona Beach, may we all be reminded of the tremendous responsibility that we all have to our youth, to our communities and to equality and diversity. We are humbled and grateful to be a part of this statuary project and may Dr. Bethune’s iconic presence continue to inspire us all and bring our communities closer together.”
She made a difference in people’s lives
These are just a few examples of Dr. Bethune’s legacy. At the time of her death on May 18, 1955, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune was considered one of the greatest Black women to have lived. The Washington Post commented that “not only are her own people, but all of America, has been enriched and ennobled by her courageous, ebullient spirit.”
“She wasn’t just an average educator,” Dr. Youmans said. “She really had power. She moved quietly, but she was a force. Dr. Bethune was recognized by everyone, not just the Black community, but the white community as well, as being somebody. She made a difference in many people’s lives.”
Photos courtesy of Bethune-Cookman University Archives