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Ringing the Bell of Freedom: Mary McLeod Bethune, Education, and Sweet Potato Pie

Each year a theme is selected for Juneteenth celebrations, and this year the theme is Excellence in Education. At the Castle Museum you can see an exhibit about Lula Briggs Galloway who worked to make Juneteenth a national holiday. She also cited the importance of education, particularly Black history education, in her efforts. We recognized the opening of the exhibit last week with a tea cakes recipe and teaser about the woman we will turn our historical gaze to this week.

Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955) is a historical figure that epitomizes the celebration of education for Juneteenth, and she is someone every American should know. Last week we mentioned that the tea cakes recipe was credited to her. Today we will share Bethune’s sweet potato pie recipe, but first, let’s reflect on her accomplishments. 

Not only did Mary McLeod Bethune champion education, she was also one of the most formidable champions of women’s rights in the twentieth century.

She opened Daytona Normal and Industrial Training Institute for Negro Girls in 1904. She did not really have an operating budget – she only had $1.50. But she had faith in this project, and within two years, the school grew from just five students to 250. She then turned her attention to addressing the racial inequalities in healthcare and began a training school for Black nurses. It was the only such institute on the east coast. 

In 1923, the Daytona Normal School, which was still growing, merged with Cookman Institute of Jacksonville to become Bethune-Cookman College. This HBCU is now a university and has just celebrated its 100th anniversary. Bethune served as president from 1923-1942 and again from 1946-1947. She was one of only a few female presidents at the time. 

Continuing with her life’s work to promote women and create equal opportunities, Bethune founded the National Council of Negro Women in 1935. Shortly after, in 1936, Bethune was appointed to Franklin Roosevelt’s National Youth Administration. She was the only woman in FDR’s “Black Cabinet” of advisors. She also became friends with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Through her connection, Bethune lobbied for the racial integration of the Civilian Pilot Training Program. Her efforts led to HBCUs training some of the nation’s first Black pilots. She was part of the American delegation to the founding conference of the United Nations. Bethune was also a founder of the United Negro College Fund. 

As her life drew to a close, Mary McLeod Bethune wrote her Last Will and Testament as her “legacy of love,” focusing not on material possessions, of which she had few, but on her wealth of experiences. Published in Ebony magazine, it opens: 

Sometimes as I sit communing in my study I feel that death is not far off. I am aware that it will overtake me before the greatest of my dreams – full equality for the Negro in our time – is realized. Yet, I face that reality without tears or regrets. 

Among the experiences she bequeathed were love, hope, faith, challenge, respect for the uses of power, racial dignity, a desire to live harmoniously, and a thirst for education. She closed by bequeathing “... a responsibility to our young people.” She wrote, “The world around us really belongs to youth for youth will take over its future management. Our children must never lose their zeal for building a better world.” 

The Recipe: Sweet Potato Pie

Mary McLeod Bethune won prizes for her baking, and she applied that skill to fundraising for her school, by making and selling her famous sweet potato pies. And while we at the Castle Test Kitchen love a good food story – and this is one – we also need to acknowledge that Bethune did more than bake pies to raise funds. She was skilled at cultivating influential white philanthropists. Through invites to sit on the board and well executed appeals, she raised enough money to fund her school’s growth from a small school to a university. One of those donors was John D. Rockefeller who reportedly gave $62,000. In any case, this recipe makes enough for all your Juneteenth guests or several for your own bake sale. 


9  medium sweet potatoes or yams (about 4 lbs.)

1  cup (2 sticks) butter, softened

½  cup granulated sugar

½  cup packed brown sugar

½  teaspoon salt

¼  teaspoon nutmeg

3  eggs, well beaten

2  cups milk

1  tablespoon vanilla

3  9-inch pie crust, unbaked 


For filling, boil sweet potatoes until tender. Peel and mash. Heat oven to 350°F. 

Combine butter, granulated sugar, brown sugar, salt and nutmeg in a large bowl. Beat at medium speed until well mixed. Beat in eggs. Beat in milk and vanilla slowly. Spoon into 3 unbaked pie shells, using about 4 cups filling per pie. 

Bake at 350°F for 50 to 60 minutes or until set. Cool to room temperature before serving. Store in the refrigerator. 



Juneteenth and food go hand in hand, so if sweet potato pie isn’t your thing (or you want to peruse a recipe for a single pie) check out this article from the Saginaw Daily News in 1992, published to entice Saginawians to get into the celebratory spirit for that first local Juneteenth commemoration. 


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