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Photograph of the annual conference of the National Council of Negro Women

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.

Photograph of Annual conference of the National Council of Negro Women

SectionThe National Council of Negro Women

Since 1935, the National Council of Negro Women has empowered and advocated for Black women, families, and communities.

I am concerned about the central Wheel, composed of the many spokes of religious, educational, fraternal, political, economic, welfare and business organizations of Negro women—developing the ideals of our several groups.

Mary McLeod Bethune, letter to Mary Church Terrell, 1930

"The Central Wheel"

Prior to the founding of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) in 1935, African American women had established numerous local, regional, and national organizations that served community needs. Most of these associations worked independently of each other and had different goals, priorities, and functions. Even groups with a national membership, like the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), were largely decentralized, with activities concentrated at the local chapter level. In creating the NCNW, Mary McLeod Bethune envisioned a centralized organization that would coordinate the efforts of diverse African American women’s associations and represent their political interests at the national level. To describe her vision, she used the image of a wheel, with the NCNW as the hub and the member organizations as its spokes. By 1949, when Bethune retired as president, the NCNW included over 20 national women’s organizations.

Image of a wheel displaying various organizations related to the National Council of Negro Women

Women united around The National Council of Negro Women, have made purposeful strides in the march toward democratic living. . . . Our headquarters is symbolic of the direction of their going.

Mary McLeod Bethune, 1949

The Council House

Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site

One of Mary McLeod Bethune’s primary goals as founding president of the National Council of Negro Women was to establish a permanent headquarters in Washington, D.C. In 1943 the NCNW purchased an elegant rowhouse at 1318 Vermont Avenue, in the Logan Circle neighborhood. The “Council House” served as a base of operations for the NCNW and as a residence for Bethune, establishing a visible political presence for African American women in the nation’s capital.

The Council House served as the NCNW headquarters from its dedication in 1944 until 1966. Today the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House is a National Historic Site operated by the National Park Service, which preserves the legacy of Bethune and the NCNW through its museum, archives, and public programs.

Take a virtual tour of the Council House on the National Park Service website.

Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site
Photograph of Mary McLeod Bethune (with back to camera) speaking at the dedication of the National Council of Negro Women headquarters

Mary McLeod Bethune (with back to camera) speaking at the dedication of the National Council of Negro Women headquarters, 1944

Photograph of Eleanor Roosevelt speaking at the Council House dedication

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt speaking at the Council House dedication, 1944

Photograph of Reception at the Council House, including Mary McLeod Bethune and Venita Lewis of the Department of Labor Children’s Bureau

Reception at the Council House, including Mary McLeod Bethune and Venita Lewis of the Department of Labor Children’s Bureau, 1945"

Photograph of education department meeting in the conference room of the NCNW Council House

Education department meeting in the conference room of the Council House, 1954

An Information Clearinghouse

Cover image of Women United, Vol. 9, No. 1, April 1949

Women United, Vol. 9, No. 1, April 1949

Cover image of Telefact. Vol. VII. No. 6. July, 1948

Telefact, Vol. 7, No. 6, July 1948

In its constitution and bylaws, the National Council of Negro Women pledged to “collect, interpret, disseminate, and preserve information about and particularly affecting women.” To this end, the organization published a quarterly magazine, The Aframerican Woman’s Journal (later retitled Women United), and Telefact, a monthly newsletter, along with numerous handbooks, reports, and pamphlets. These NCNW publications encouraged African American women to see themselves as part of a national community with shared concerns and common goals.

Cover image of Women United, Vol. 9, No. 1, April 1949

Women United, Vol. 9, No. 1, April 1949

Cover image of Telefact. Vol. VII. No. 6. July, 1948

Telefact, Vol. 7, No. 6, July 1948

Photograph of White House Conference on Governmental Cooperation in the Approach to the Problems of Negro Women and Children

White House Conference, 1938

Special Projects

A black-and-white photograph of the liberty ship S.S. Harriet Tubman as it is launched down the slipway and into the Atlantic Ocean, mounted on a black paper page of a bound photograph album commemorating the event owned by Harriet Tubman's niece, Eva Stewart Northrup. The bow of the ship is depicted in the center of the image, surrounded by scaffolding. Two raised anchors feature prominently on either side of the ship and at the top is a striped banner with a large "V" victory symbol at the center. On each side of the ship are large letters reading [HARRIET TUBMAN]. The deck of the ship is loaded with sailors, shipwrights and others, many waving their hats in the air. There are also several men standing on either side of the shipway. There are no marks or inscriptions, front or back.

Launch of the Liberty Ship SS Harriet Tubman, 1944

Photograph of Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana with NCNW delegation

NCNW Delegation with Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Washington, D.C., 1958

Cover image of Wednesdays in Mississippi, 1964–1965: Final Report

Wednesdays in Mississippi, 1964–1965: Final Report

Over the decades, the National Council of Negro Women initiated and supported a variety of projects to improve the social, economic, and political status of African Americans. The NCNW implemented these programs through its central headquarters, regional councils, and partnerships with member organizations. Together these efforts helped Black women take an active role in the political affairs of the nation— from the Depression and World War II to postwar international relations and the Civil Rights Movement.

A black-and-white photograph of the liberty ship S.S. Harriet Tubman as it is launched down the slipway and into the Atlantic Ocean, mounted on a black paper page of a bound photograph album commemorating the event owned by Harriet Tubman's niece, Eva Stewart Northrup. The bow of the ship is depicted in the center of the image, surrounded by scaffolding. Two raised anchors feature prominently on either side of the ship and at the top is a striped banner with a large "V" victory symbol at the center. On each side of the ship are large letters reading [HARRIET TUBMAN]. The deck of the ship is loaded with sailors, shipwrights and others, many waving their hats in the air. There are also several men standing on either side of the shipway. There are no marks or inscriptions, front or back.

Launch of the Liberty Ship SS Harriet Tubman, 1944

Photograph of Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana with NCNW delegation

NCNW Delegation with Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Washington, D.C., 1958

Cover image of Wednesdays in Mississippi, 1964–1965: Final Report

Wednesdays in Mississippi, 1964–1965: Final Report

Legacy of Leadership

Image of NCNW donation box, “Bethune Legacy into the 21st Century”

Donation box with portraits of NCNW president Dorothy Height and founder Mary McLeod Bethune, ca. 2000

Throughout her lifetime, Mary McLeod Bethune served as a mentor to many African American women, including several who succeeded her as president of the National Council of Negro Women. Following Bethune’s example, Dorothy Height and other NCNW leaders continued to shape national policy and worked to ensure that the NCNW would remain a vital force for civil rights and social change for generations to come. In the process, they showed the powerful influence that Black women could wield in the United States.

Image of NCNW donation box, “Bethune Legacy into the 21st Century”

Donation box with portraits of NCNW president Dorothy Height and founder Mary McLeod Bethune, ca. 2000

Photograph of Dorothy Boulding Ferebee

Dorothy Boulding Ferebee

A physician and educator, Dorothy Boulding Ferebee (1898–1980) served as the second president of the National Council of Negro Women, from 1949 to 1953. She also served as director of Health Services at Howard University Medical School, president of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, and vice president of Girl Scouts of America.

Photograph of Vivian Carter Mason

Vivian Carter Mason

The third president of the National Council of Negro Women, from 1953 to 1957, Vivian Carter Mason (1900–1982) was a social worker, educator, and community activist. She was the first African American director of social services for the New York City Department of Welfare and led an interracial effort to desegregate public schools in Norfolk, Virginia. Here she participates in a Radio Free Europe broadcast in the 1950s.

Dorothy Height

Photograph of Dr. Dorothy Height stands in front of wall plaques

Dr. Dorothy Height stands in front of wall plaques in a 1986 photograph. (Photo by Maurice Sorrell)

Dorothy Irene Height (1912–2010) led the National Council of Negro Women from 1957 to 1997. Height began her career in the 1930s as a community organizer and social worker with the Harlem YWCA. In 1937 she joined the NCNW and worked closely with Mary McLeod Bethune in the crusade for women’s rights and racial justice. During her tenure as president, the NCNW developed community-based programs that improved the lives of African American women, children, and families by addressing inequities in areas such as nutrition, education, employment, and housing. Height also led the campaign to build a memorial to Bethune in Washington, D.C., and oversaw the establishment of the NCNW Council House as a museum and National Historic Site. In honor of her lifelong work for social justice, Height received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.

Photograph of Dr. Dorothy Height stands in front of wall plaques

Dr. Dorothy Height stands in front of wall plaques in a 1986 photograph. (Photo by Maurice Sorrell)

Dorothy Height and Mary Mc Leod Bethune Remembered cover image

Dorothy Height and Mary McLeod Bethune Remembered

Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole, former president of Spelman College and Bennett College and director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, served as the seventh president of the National Council of Negro Women from 2018 to 2022. In this session from the Will To Adorn program at the 2013 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, Dr. Cole shared her memories of Mary McLeod Bethune and discussed Bethune’s legacy of leadership.