How Mary McLeod Bethune created Bethune-Cookman University with $1.50 in her pocket

VOLUSIA COUNTY, Fla. — From a garage dump to one of the country’s top universities, Mary McLeod Bethune created Bethune-Cookman University with just a $1.50 in her pocket.


Inside the Daytona Beach News-Journal Center last October, people got their first look at the marble statue of Bethune.

The statue of the civil rights activist and educator will replace a confederate general and represent Florida inside the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall.

“When I saw it, I got weak in the knees. I actually fell. I was so overcome because I was standing front and center and her eyes caught mine, and I can’t describe the feeling to you,” said Hiram Powell, the university’s interim president.

Bethune grew up in South Carolina and later moved to Palatka to teach, but her goal was to build her own school.

READ: Meet civil rights pioneer & Bethune-Cookman University founder Mary McLeod Bethune

“Her family had taught her the key to success is education,” said Tasha Lucas-Youmans, the university’s dean of libraries.

Lucas-Youmans said Bethune picked Daytona Beach because a railroad was being built through it.

She said Bethune knew the Black workers and their families would need opportunities for education.

She knew what education meant for those families, so it was a strong desire for her to have it. But the opportunities were few, so when she had it, she grabbed and made something of it,” Lucas-Youmans said.

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Bethune first launched an all girls school on Oak Street named Daytona Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls.

As the school grew, she bought land at the old dump for $1.50 and moved the school to where it sits today.

Lucas-Youmans said Bethune developed relationships with people like John Rockefeller, James Gamble and Thomas White to help finance the school and her vision.

“This was a city dump. She came and she looked at the property she knew this is where her school should be. She knew it in her heart and thought about it in her mind, but no one else believed her,” Lucas-Youmans said.

READ: The Town that Freedom Built: The story of Eatonville, America’s first official Black town

The college merged with the Cookman Institute in 1923 and became a university in 2007.

In recent years, the university worked to overcome ballooning debt, lawsuits, a dropping credit rating and an accreditation probation to keep its doors open and continue the legacy Bethune began more than a century ago.

“It has afforded a lot of people opportunities that they would not of ordinary received -- particularly in the local community in Florida,” Lucas-Youmans said.

An opportunity that saw an old landfill become an institution of higher learning and creating a tradition that will now stand tall in the Capitol for all to see.

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