The First Lady of the Struggle

Mary McLeod Bethune acted as leader of the Black Cabinet. Bethune was a friend and confidante of Eleanor Roosevelt and FDR held her in high regard. She used her unique connection to the Roosevelts to bring race-related issues directly to the President. Photograph: Library of Congress

Much of the success of the Black Cabinet was due to the influence of its leader, Mary McLeod Bethune. In 1936, FDR appointed Bethune as Director of the Division of Negro Affairs in the National Youth Administration (NYA). She served there from 1936 until the agency’s demise in 1943. The highest ranking African American in the federal government, Bethune was also the first Black woman to administer a federal program. A forceful and inspiring leader, she helped make the NYA the New Deal’s most racially progressive agency.

In June 1938, Bethune solicited FDR’s support for a bill to increase federal funding for African American education in the South. A handwritten note from FDR’s personal secretary Grace Tully on the upper right instructed the President’s assistant Marvin “Mac” McIntyre “to prepare reply after taking up with the Congressman who is responsible for it.” NAID 311315396

Bethune occupied a uniquely powerful position among Black officials in Washington. Before joining the New Deal, she had forged a distinguished career as an educator, women’s club movement leader, and civil rights advocate. Bethune was the founder and president of Bethune-Cookman College and the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW). In 1940, she would become a vice president of the NAACP. Her speeches and regular contributions to Black newspapers further raised her public profile, helping her earn the title “The First Lady of the Struggle.”

In this phone message for FDR’s secretary Marvin McIntyre, Bethune requested that FDR participate in some way in the upcoming 2nd National Conference on the Problems of the Negro and Negro Youth organized by her and other Black Cabinet members. NAID 311315394

During this time, Bethune became a close friend and confidante of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. She used her connection to ER to bring racial discrimination issues directly to President Roosevelt’s attention and FDR held her in high regard. At Bethune’s invitation, ER spoke at the National Conference on the Problems of the Negro and Negro Youth that Bethune and other Black Cabinet members organized in 1937. In 1938, the two friends co-hosted a major White House conference on the problems of Black women and children.  

Mrs. Bethune developed a close relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt, who provided access and assistance to her friend. In this letter, Bethune asked for ER’s help with personnel changes she wished to make in her office as Director of the Negro Affairs Division of the National Youth Administration (NYA). NAID 311315534

Members of the Black Cabinet acknowledged the power of Bethune’s dynamic personality and White House ties and usually deferred to her leadership. Her offices at the NCNW served as a hub for Black Cabinet meetings and she provided critical support to other Black racial advisers. 

To learn more, please visit our current special exhibition BLACK AMERICANS, CIVIL RIGHTS, AND THE ROOSEVELTS, 1932-1962: