On July 10, 1875, Mary Jane McLeod was born in Maysville, South Carolina to Samuel and Patsy McIntosh McLeod. Her parents, having been enslaved, toiled in the cottonfields. When the Civil War ended, her mother continued to work for the man who previously owned her until she was able to purchase the land on which their family labored.
As the fifteenth of seventeen children born to the McLeods, Mary (and only her two younger siblings) was born free. At the age of five, she began to work in the fields alongside her family and by the age of nine years old, could pick two-hundred and fifty pounds of cotton per day.
When she turned ten, she began her formal education at Trinity Presbyterian Mission School, which was created for African-Americans. The only child of all the McLeod children to attend school, Mary walked miles, each way, every day and shared what she learned with her loved ones. Later in her life, McLeod, in emphasizing the importance of education, would regale that the opportunity for her to learn to read opened the whole world, and its possibilities, to her.