Mary Magdalene Bethea was born November 1, 1921, in Charleston, South Carolina. She was raised by her parents, Esau and Mary Washington, along with her two sisters and two brothers. Inspired by her parents to pursue dreams of economic independence, Bethea enrolled at Poro Beauty School in Columbia after receiving a Bachelor of Arts degree in Education from Benedict College. The only beauty school owned by and operated for African Americans in the state of South Carolina, Poro Beauty School not only inspired her love of cosmetology as a career, but also became the place where she met her future husband, Moses Bethea.
On January 16, 1956, she opened Bethea’s Waverly School of Beauty Culture in Columbia, SC. It became a destination for many African American beauticians who received training and later created their own businesses. During her 28-year stint as owner, operator, and instructor, Bethea’s business acumen and mentorship of the students at Waverly School of Beauty Culture earned her the 1975 “School Owner of the Year” award from the Bronner Brothers International Beauty Trade School Show, one of the most prestigious awards in the Beauty Trade industry. Her creation of a Black-owned business, following in the footsteps of individuals such as Madame C.J. Walker, deserves to be remembered in an age of increasing numbers of African American female entrepreneurs. Bethea’s contributions are a reminder of how African Americans invested dollars into the growth and advancement of their communities and serves as an inspiring story of perseverance and determination.
Bethea is the author of The Waverly School of Beauty Culture: A Historical and Pictorial Account from 1956-1984. She has one son, Moses Bethea, Jr. who is married to Velma G. Bethea. Mary Bethea is the grandmother of Ashleigh and Christopher Bethea and great-grandmother of four.