Daytona is known for more than its beach and its International Speedway. The historic Bethune home is Trip Advisor's top-rated Daytona attraction.
DAYTONA BEACH — For the last three years, it’s been the city's highest-rated attraction on Trip Advisor.
Hint: It’s not Daytona International Speedway. Or the beach.
Set on the grounds of Bethune-Cookman University, The Mary McLeod Bethune Foundation: National Historic Landmark, or the Bethune Foundation as it's known informally, placed No. 1 of the 83 things to do in the city.
The best part? It’s free.
Here’s what reviewers are saying about the only five-star rated attraction in Daytona Beach, which of 143 reviews — only four were rated average or less.
“I was mesmerized by all of the history that took place at that home. It is always great when you can go back in time to see how things came to be as I did with Bethune Cookman. The tour guide was excellent and knew his history of the house … Would very much suggest everyone to go visit.”
“A wonderfully restored and well-kept exhibit of past local history … This home reflects the beautiful pieces of furniture and architecture of the early century and the care with which they were chosen.”
To appreciate the home formerly called “Bethune Mansion,” it helps to know a little about the woman who occupied it.
Born in 1875 as the 15th child of former slaves, Mary McLeod Bethune would go on in 1904 to use $1.50 to found the Daytona Beach Literary and Industrial School for Training Negro Girls (now Bethune-Cookman University) on what was then a garbage dump. Later, in 1936, as director of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration, Bethune became the highest-ranking African American woman in the U.S. government.
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She championed tirelessly for women’s and civil rights and advised U.S. Presidents Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Harry S. Truman. Now streets bear her name and statues of her likeness.
Originally built in 1904 in a segregated black neighborhood just west of today's Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, the two-story home was gifted to Bethune in 1913 by James Gamble of Proctor & Gamble fame and Thomas White of White Sewing Machine Co. They gave the educator the home because they wanted her to have a fitting place to retreat and entertain guests, said Tasha Youmans, dean of B-CU’s library.
And in the more than 40 years she spent there before her death in 1955, Bethune hosted celebrities and dignitaries of the times under the home’s roof: First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, baseball great Jackie Robinson, famed writer Langston Hughes.
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“It really shows how deep her relationships were throughout this county. You have pictures of presidents, entrepreneurs, people that you never would’ve thought that a little black girl from Maysville, South Carolina, would’ve had interactions with,” Youmans said. “The depth of her relationships, it’s just mind-blowing.”
The humble home is an inward reflection of Bethune’s vast outward reach. Filled with her original belongings, to visit the home is to walk through 2,500 square feet of history.
Here’s just some of what you’ll see inside it:
Rows of china given to Bethune from John D. Rockefeller and Eleanor Roosevelt line the cabinets of the home’s formal dining room. Ornate wooden chairs flank the dining room table where Bethune often entertained guests.
The room also houses an antique radio, an old record player that can spin 45s, and one of the home’s two oil-burning stoves.
In the kitchen stands old icebox-style refrigerator and stove with built-in crockpot. Sugar packets from a Jacksonville plantation and a mounted nutcracker stand at the ready for what B-CU senior and tour guide Lydia Bob said students used to make pecan and other pies sold to help support the school.
In Bethune’s office, rows of old, rich books covering everything from history to spirituality line the bookcases. A great number of plaques, trophies and awards stand as a testament to Bethune’s decades of advocacy.
But her heart is perhaps best symbolized by a stand of artificial black roses that rest on her desk.
As Bob told it, one time on a trip to Amsterdam, Bethune passed a rose garden. In it, grew a white, red, pink, and black rose, now nicknamed the Bethune Rose. Seeing how the roses all were growing together in harmony, Bethune wished that the same peaceful coexistence found in nature would extend to humankind.
“She felt as people, that’s how we should be,” Bob said.
The ground floor also features the home’s newest addition, a modest gift shop, which Youmans said was greatly expanded last year. In it, patrons can peruse clothes, postcards, and other keepsakes.
Upstairs is home to a number of rooms including that of Bethune’s caretakers and nieces, Ms. Georgia and Ms. Lucille. Another room housed Bethune's son, foster child, grandson and great-grandson, though all lived at different times.
One of the home’s more notable features is its bathroom with all original fixtures and more importantly, interior plumbing.
“It sounds very simple, but I remember the first time my parents told me, as black people, we had to go to the bathroom outside, and as a kid, I was like, ‘that’s weird,’ ” Bob said. “To think that she was the only African American in Daytona Beach to have indoor plumbing … it kind of blows me away. We don’t think about that people couldn’t do that at the time, and only selective people could.”
And if the walls could speak — and through the home’s tour guides they do — they’d tell of the time Bethune’s friend Eleanor Roosevelt paid a visit.
As the story goes, Bethune insisted Roosevelt have her bedroom, which was the largest in the house and had its own private bathroom. The room also features a photo of Bethune’s parents, a picture of the shack she grew up in, and dressers to store a lady’s wardrobe.
However, the Secret Service, wary of all the windows in the master bedroom, wasn’t having it and directed Roosevelt to stay in the much more modest guest bedroom.
It didn’t seem to bother Roosevelt, who — herself a champion for human rights — was more interested in the woman of the house than her bedchamber. She wrote about Bethune in the now defunct New York World-Telegram and a copy of the article hangs on the guest bedroom wall.
"I have real admiration for Mrs. Bethune and her devotion to her race as well as her tact and wisdom in all the work she undertakes," Roosevelt wrote.
The Sunroom or the “Who’s Who Room,” as it called colloquially is one of the more interesting rooms in the house. In it, all one has to do is point — and history unfolds, Youmans said.
Rows upon rows of photos line the walls, including one addressed to Bethune by Truman himself. An intricate wooden cane, given to Franklin D. Roosevelt, by his uncle — and 26th U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt rests in a glass case. Another section houses a B-CU senior exhibit featuring letters, Bethune’s gavel, and Haitian Medal of Honor from 1949.
In 1953, two years before she died, Bethune willed the home to the Mary McLeod Bethune Foundation. She said she wanted the home to serve as a place to “awaken people and have them realize there is something in the world they can do.”
Her gravesite rests on the flowered grounds just outside the home.
On December 2, 1974, the National Park Service listed the home as a National Historic Landmark. According to the foundation’s website, it receives thousands of visitors each year.
Statues of elephants rest throughout the home, standing as symbols of the strength and wisdom indicative of Bethune, whose legacy continues to inspire successive generations. Among them is Bob, who said she admired Bethune’s bravery.
“History like this needs to be taught more in schools,” Bob said. “I know as little girl if I would’ve known about Dr. Bethune and if I would’ve known more about African American women and their power, I feel like that hugely would’ve impacted how I felt about myself and thankfully coming to this university has truly given me a unique black experience.”
If you go
WHERE: The Mary McLeod Bethune Foundation National Historic Landmark home is located at 640 Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune Boulevard in Daytona Beach.
HOURS: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday, and Saturdays by appointment.
COST: Tours are free and donations are welcome. Exterior photos are permitted, but interior shots are not allowed.
DONATE: To give or for more information about a visit email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 386-481-2121.
This story originally published to news-journalonline.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the GateHouse Media network.