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Grandson remembers his grandmother as a ‘social entrepreneur’

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By Alice Du Pont

Mary McLeod Bethune, a woman who received international recognition for her contributions as a educator, politician and civil rights leader, was much more than that, according to her grandson Albert McLeod Bethune Jr., a Quincy resident.

"I would refer to her as a social entrepreneur. She was an extraordinary woman who was driven by her intellect and business savvy," said Bethune, who grew with his grandmother in Daytona Beach.

To finance the school she dreamed of, history has recorded she started with $1.50 and sold sweet potato pies and boiled eggs to help finance the opening of the Daytona Literary and Industrial School.

"On the day that she opened the school, there were five little girls and her son, my father, in attendance. That school is now Bethune-Cookman University at Daytona Beach. That made her the first woman to have established a secondary school that became a 4-year accredited college," Bethune said.

According to Bethune, his grandmother was one of the founders of the Central Life Insurance Company of Tampa. When he previous co-founders died, she became president of the company, making her the only woman in the United States to be an insurance company president. She also held capital stock in the Afro-American Insurance Company in Jacksonville and was one of the primary investors in the Pittsburgh Courier, the nation’s most widely circulated African-American newspaper until the mid-1970s.

He said her social savvy was further demonstrated when, after recognizing the need for a hospital for blacks, she founded the McLeod Hospital in Daytona Beach in 1912.

"I think my grandmother's greatest entrepreneurial skills were demonstrated in 1943 when she, along with several other business owners, purchased a 2-and-a-half mile stretch of ocean front property known as the Bethune-Volusia Beach Corporation. In those days, African-Americans were denied the simple pleasure of going to the beach because of segregation. That changed when the tract of land they purchased featured recreation areas and housing developments located on the beach for African-Americans who were denied access to the beach. She was also instrumental in the first motel on the beach, known as the Welricha Motel," Bethune said.

He recalled many days as a child when people, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, would call on his grandmother to discuss various social issues and ask for advice and assistance. Her aim, he said, was to help the disadvantaged and the disenfranchised and to  change society for the better.

"The things she did weren't about her, it was about how she she wanted to make a difference in the lives of others. She used to say 'not for myself, but for others.'  She wanted to be the agent for change. I call her a social entrepreneur because I saw her courage, her persistence, her motivation and her resourcefulness on a daily basis," he said.

Bethune said his grandmother worked tirelessly to influence legislation affecting blacks and women and was an important voice in human rights until her death in 1955 at the age of 79.

Send your comments to adupont@gadcotimes.com.