The mellifluous tones of hymns filled Northeast's Lincoln Park yesterday as several hundred people gathered to celebrate the 108th anniversary of the birth of Mary McLeod Bethune. Born to slaves, the educator eventually came to advise four U.S. presidents.

Bethune died in 1955, but her memory lives on in the rough-hewn statue that rises in the park at 13th and East Capitol streets NE and in the minds of those who are continuing the work she began so many years ago, speakers said.

"Mrs. Bethune built her own monument, as founder of the Bethune-Cookman College, as founder of the National Council of Negro Women . . . and as one who challenged us to look forever at new horizons," said Dorothy I. Height, who is now president of the organization Bethune founded.

The crowd had gathered under a green-and-white canopy for a ceremony of song and speeches that preceded the laying of a wreath at the foot of the Bethune statue. Unveiled on July 10, 1974, it was the first statue of a black American and of a woman to be erected in a public park in the nation's capital.

Yesterday, speakers rose to praise Bethune's contributions as an educator and humanitarian. In 1904, with $1.50, orange crates to use as seats and five young students, Bethune founded in Florida the school that subsequently became Bethune-Cookman College. She also worked as an adviser to four presidents, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, and in 1935 she founded the National Council of Negro Women, which has grown to include 27 national women's organizations and about 200 community-based groups today.

And then there were the many lives she touched personally. Height recalled that as part of her own work with the YWCA in 1937, she escorted First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to a meeting of the national council Bethune was holding in Harlem. At the end of the meeting, Height said Bethune asked her, "Honey, what's your name?" and then said, "When you're finished taking Mrs. Roosevelt out, come back because we need you."

Height says, "I came back and I've been with it ever since."