Mary McLeod Bethune and the National Council of Negro Women
Educator and reformer Mary McLeod Bethune (1875–1955) dedicated her life to empowering Black women to work for equality. First through the school she founded in Daytona Beach, Florida (known today as Bethune-Cookman University), and later as a national organization leader and federal government official, she carved out new roles and created new opportunities for women in the public sphere. In addition to supporting grassroots activism, Bethune emphasized the need for African Americans to participate in the political system as both voters and policymakers. She also looked to build interracial coalitions and exercise collective power on a national scale in order to bring about major civil rights reforms.
Bethune’s commitment to African American women’s political empowerment found its greatest and most lasting expression through the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), the organization she founded in 1935. Building on her experience as a leader of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, Bethune created the NCNW as “the central Wheel” that would unite and channel the activities of women’s organizations across the country. Under the leadership of Bethune and her successors, the NCNW gained political recognition for African American women, established a national agenda for social justice issues, and helped lay the foundation for the modern Civil Rights Movement.
America can be changed. It will be changed.
Mary McLeod Bethune
Born in 1875 to formerly enslaved parents, Mary McLeod Bethune was part of the first generation of African Americans born after slavery who pushed to take full advantage of the promises of freedom, including education. As a child in Mayesville, South Carolina, she attended a school established by Presbyterian missionaries. She received scholarships to attend the Scotia Seminary for Girls in Concord, North Carolina, and the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Illinois. In 1904, she founded a school in Daytona Beach, Florida, to provide African American girls with elementary education and vocational training. Through the connections she forged with Black community leaders and white philanthropists, Bethune raised funds to expand the school. In 1923 the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Girls merged with the Cookman Institute, a Methodist school for men in Jacksonville, Florida, to form the Daytona-Cookman Collegiate Institute, known today as Bethune-Cookman University.
Negroes have begun a persistent knocking at the doors of educational services and institutions of all kinds—a knocking that will not cease until every door is open.
Mary McLeod Bethune, Message to the American Teachers Association
As Mary McLeod Bethune pursued her work in education, she also became active in women’s organizations, rising to positions of leadership at the local, state, and national level. In 1917 she was elected president of the Florida Federation of Colored Women, and in 1920 she established the Southeastern Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs to link the activities of state club federations throughout the region. From 1924 to 1928 she served as president of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), an organization founded in 1896 by Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin. Through her involvement with the NACW, Bethune saw a need for a more centralized organization that would mobilize women’s groups to advocate for civil rights at the national level. This inspired her to establish the National Council of Negro Women, which she led from 1935 until 1949.
Help me draw fast the sisterly cords of love, the RACIAL cords that are bigger than our state organizations, our sectional organizations and even our own glorious National; for, as a RACE we must reach the topmost round of success, where we shall meet all other peoples on common ground.
Mary McLeod Bethune, NACW President’s Greetings, 1925
In 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Mary McLeod Bethune to oversee the Negro Affairs division of the National Youth Administration (NYA), a federal program created to promote education, job training, and employment for young people. As the first Black woman to hold a high-level government office, Bethune used her position to advocate for equal opportunities for African Americans and to oppose racial and gender discrimination. She organized and led the Federal Council on Negro Affairs—the so-called “Black Cabinet”—a group of Black federal officials who advised President Roosevelt on civil rights issues. During World War II, Bethune served as an advisor to the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) and encouraged the recruitment of Black WAC officers. She continued to serve as a governmental advisor on race relations under President Harry S. Truman and participated in the 1945 conference to draft the charter for the United Nations.
We have fought for America with all her imperfections, not so much for what she is, but for what we know she can be.
Mary McLeod Bethune, 1939
On November 23, 1939, Mary McLeod Bethune appeared as a panelist on America’s Town Meeting of the Air, a weekly public affairs radio program broadcast nationwide from New York City’s Town Hall. Asked to speak on the topic “What Does American Democracy Mean to Me?”, Bethune addressed the problem of racial injustice and issued a powerful call to the nation to fulfill its democratic promise.
The Freedom Gates are half-ajar. We must pry them fully open.
Mary McLeod Bethune, “My Last Will and Testament”, 1955
One of the most prominent and influential figures of the 20th century, Mary McLeod Bethune demonstrated through her extraordinary life and work the powerful spirit of “making a way out of no way.” A visionary leader and consummate institution builder, Bethune worked on multiple fronts—including higher education, women’s associations, and the federal government—to advance the struggle for freedom and equality. She also worked across racial lines, building national coalitions and recruiting allies to her causes. Bethune summarized her philosophy of service and her hopes for future generations in her “Last Will and Testament,” written shortly before her death in 1955. In 1974, a memorial to Bethune was dedicated in Washington, D.C. It was the first public monument dedicated to an African American, and to an American woman, in the nation’s capital. In 2022, Bethune became the first Black person to be honored with a state-commissioned statue in the U.S. Capitol Building’s National Statuary Hall.