Mary McLeod Bethune’s contributions to education and civil rights are well known, as evidenced by the amazing list of achievements the trailblazing educator made in her lifetime. On this day in 1936, Bethune became the first African-American woman to receive a major federal government appointment after being named Director of Negro Affairs for the National Youth Administration.
Bethune’s appointment to the NYA was possible as a result of then President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal domestic programs. The NYA was born to address the needs of unemployed youth aged 16 through 25. Bethune’s efforts in attracting Black unemployed youth to the NYA were so robust, she was offered the position, although some reports say she was initially only an assistant and gained the directorship in 1938.
Most accounts, however, use this date in 1936 as the start of her collaboration with President Roosevelt before going on to become a prominent fixture of FDR’s “Black Cabinet,” also known as the Federal Council of Negro Affairs group. Bethune was not merely a feel-good figurehead. She used her skills as a financial manager to construct a collaboration between Black colleges to work alongside the Civilian Pilot Training Program.
The Program helped to graduate some of the nation’s first Black pilots. Bethune juggled her duties in Washington while continuing to serve as president of the still-growing Bethune-Cookman junior college. Bethune stepped down as president of the college in 1942, citing health and time issues. Still, she tirelessly devoted her energies to promoting stronger opportunities for disfranchised young Black people, but found that support from Washington was waning due to lack of funding and private agencies doing similar work. The NYA was ended in 1943.
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