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.
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.
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
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.
An Information Clearinghouse
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.
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.
Legacy of Leadership
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.
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.
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 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.
Dorothy Height and Mary McLeod Bethune Remembered