The late Mary McLeod Bethune was hailed yesterday as a great educator of children and a social activist for all people during a ceremony commemorating a U.S. postage stamp issued in her honor.

The 22-cent stamp, bearing a portrait of Bethune, is the eighth in the U.S. Postal Service's Black Heritage USA series.

The Bethune stamp, which was available only in the District yesterday, becomes available in other parts of the country today.

Hymns filled the Departmental Auditorium on Constitution Avenue between 12th and 14th streets NW yesterday as 1,500 people gathered to praise Bethune's contributions as an educator and humanitarian.

"This is indeed a great day, one we have all hoped for, one we have all cried for, and one that will be remembered by all . . . , " said Bettye Collier Thomas, the executive director of the Bethune Museum-Archives.

Bethune, born in 1875 on a South Carolina plantation, dedicated her life to the fight for civil rights.

She was the founder of the Daytona Normal School for girls in Daytona Beach, Fla., later renamed the Bethune-Cookman College, and she founded the National Council of Negro Women.

People lined up yesterday outside the auditorium to buy the new stamp.

"We came from Bronx, N.Y.," said Della Silva, a council member. "This is truly her day in the sun . . . a day that has been long overdue." "I am a very proud woman today," said Nellie Charlston, a housewife and council member.

"Bethune was a great lady who tried to bring education to all our people and I am truly proud to be a part of this glorious day," she said.

Bethune, who died in 1955, was last honored in the District in 1974 when a statue was erected at Lincoln Park, 13th and East Capitol streets.

D.C. School Board member Barbara Lett Simmons, who led the statue committee, said yesterday's ceremony "shows how black Americans are in need of reaching back into our history so as black people we can feel proud."

Albert Bethune Jr. characterized yesterday as a "very proud day not just for our family but for all the people that knew my grandmother and understood her mission . . . .

"If she were here today she would tell you herself that today is truly a day to be proud."