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the Readings


Inquiry Question

Historical Context


Reading 1
Reading 3
Reading 4



Table of

Determining the Facts

Reading 2: The National Council of Negro Women

The Early Years
By the mid 1930s, Mary McLeod Bethune was recognized as a leader in the fight for African American rights. One of her goals, however, remained unfulfilled. As early as 1928, Bethune had raised the notion of forming a coalition of black women's organizations. By this time, she felt that the NACWC did not focus enough on national issues relating to African American women. She strongly believed that if black women presented a united front, they could become a powerful force for promoting political and social change. Many separate organizations and individuals could not hope to accomplish as much as an "organization of organizations." In March 1930, Bethune held a meeting to officially propose her idea. The women present decided to set up a committee for further study rather than immediately initiate such a group. Bethune was disappointed, but did not give up. Five years later, on December 5, 1935, she addressed another group:

Most people think that I am a dreamer. Through dreams many things have come true. I am interested in women and believe in their possibilities. The world has not been willing to accept the contributions that women have made. Their influence has been felt more definitely in the past ten years than ever before. We need vision for larger things, for the unfolding and reviewing of worth while things….We need an organization to open new doors for our young women and when the council speaks its power will be felt.1

This time the group—representatives of 29 diverse black women's organizations—agreed to establish the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW). With Bethune as its president, this new organization would hopefully provide a strong national voice on issues such as education, employment, health, and civil rights. A group such as this would yield more influence and thus make greater advances. She wrote, "The great need for uniting the effort of our women kept weighing upon my mind. I could not free myself from the sense of loss, of wasted strength, sustained by the national community through failure to harness the great power of women into a force for constructive action. I could not rest until our women had met this challenge."2

NCNW incorporated in Washington, D.C. on July 25, 1936. According to the organization's constitution, the four major objectives were:

    1. To unite member organizations into a National Council of Negro Women.
    2. To educate and encourage Negro women to participate in civic, political, and economic activities in the same manner as all other Americans participate.
    3. To serve as a clearing house for the dissemination of information concerning activities of organized colored women.
    4. To initiate and promote, subject to the approval of member organizations, projects for the benefit of the Negro.
As Bethune explained:
The paramount objective of the Council is to bring together the representatives of all types of national organizations among Negro women—church and fraternal, business and professional, federated clubs, sororities, etc.—representing youth and maturity, in order to pool the best thinking of the entire group for concerted action upon the problems pertinent to the race, the nation and the world. The Council seeks further to integrate the thoughts and ideals of the Negro womanhood of our nation into the planning and thinking of the women of other races in America and the World.3
During its first year, NCNW limited membership to national women's organizations and individual life members. Soon, however, local NCNW chapters known as Metropolitan Councils were established. A Board of Directors administered the Council and volunteer executive secretaries ran the national office out of Bethune's D.C. apartment. Thirteen NCNW committees began addressing issues such as employment, education, franchisement (voting), and lynching.

One area of concern to NCNW was the lack of federal government jobs available to black females. When Bethune wanted to conduct a conference on this issue she had "to go to Mrs. Roosevelt about two months ahead and sit and talk with her for an hour on the importance of this so as to bring it there under government surroundings and shrouded in governmental setting to give prestige and history to it."4 On April 4, 1938, about 65 African Americans took part in this historic conference at the White House. Although the group's recommendations remained unfulfilled six months later, Bethune continued to be optimistic. She explained to NCNW members, "The pressure we have been making, the intercessions that we are making, they are finding their way. A door has been sealed up for two hundred years. You can't open it overnight but little crevices are coming, little leakages are getting through."5

NCNW continually strived to be included in organizations and activities that discussed important national topics. Bethune contended, "Wherever women are working for good citizenship, social and economic welfare, community health, nutrition, child welfare, civil liberties, civilian defense and other projects for the advancement of the people—there also we must be…."6 Not surprisingly, when NCNW was excluded from a conference of the Women's Interest Section in the War Department in 1941, Bethune protested:

We are anxious for you to know that we want to be and insist upon being considered a part of our American democracy, not something apart from it. We know from experience that our interests are too often neglected, ignored or scuttled unless we have effective representation in the formative stages of these projects and proposals….We are incensed!7

The Army reconsidered and invited NCNW to become a member of the Women's Interest Section. This important victory helped NCNW become the nationally recognized representative of African American women as the country entered World War II.

Throughout the war, NCNW found ways to express patriotism. In July 1943, it initiated an annual "We Serve America Week" to "demonstrate to all America the contributions made by Negro women to our war effort and to the support of our democratic ideals."8 Activities in Washington, D.C. included a parade, speeches, and a party. The highlight of the festivities the following year was the launching of a U.S. merchant marine Liberty Ship dubbed the S.S. Harriet Tubman. NCNW had sponsored the construction of the ship through the sale of war bonds. Built to transport supplies to troops overseas, this ship was the first to honor an African American woman.

NCNW tried also to focus on international relationships. During the spring of 1945, 50 nations gathered in California to formally create the United Nations. Through perseverance, Bethune earned the honor of being an associate consultant to the American delegation at that meeting. NCNW was not an official consultant, but Bethune used the opportunity to promote her organization. She said, "I regard it as the greatest opportunity of my life to lend my strength and spiritual power to the building of a new and better one-world."9

Establishing a Headquarters
Bethune had always wanted NCNW to have an official headquarters instead of using her rented apartment to conduct business. In 1943, Bethune set her sights on a three-story townhouse for sale for $15,500 in Washington. With the help of a few friends, she secured $500 for the down payment. Wealthy Chicago businessman Marshall Field donated $10,000 towards the house. NCNW officials granted Bethune the right to live in the house for free. Members worked hard to update the building and secure furnishings from friends and other organizations. Finally, during the annual meeting in October 1944, NCNW members held a special ceremony to dedicate the house. At the dedication, Bethune said, "Here women of all nationalities can come together without fear or hesitancy, secure in the knowledge that they meet as equals and as workers striving together."10

The headquarters provided a place to host social functions as well as conduct NCNW business. Dignitaries such as the Ambassador of Haiti and other distinguished guests from around the country and around the world visited the site. Although Bethune took great pride in the national headquarters, she had hoped that NCNW could acquire a larger space. This dream remained unfulfilled when the 74-year-old Bethune decided to step down as president in 1949.

Questions for Reading 2

1. Why did Bethune found NCNW? What were its major goals?

2. How did Bethune's friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt help her to pursue her causes?

3. What were some of the important issues that NCNW members worked to address? What are some examples of successes achieved by NCNW during Bethune's tenure as president?

4. Why do you think it was important for NCNW to have an official headquarters? How did the organization obtain the building?

Reading 2 was adapted from Dr. Bettye Collier-Thomas, NCNW: 1935-1980 (Washington, D.C.: The National Council of Negro Women, 1981); Audrey Thomas McCluskey and Elaine M. Smith, eds., Mary McLeod Bethune: Building a Better World: Essays and Selected Documents (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1999); Elaine M. Smith, Mary McLeod Bethune and the National Council of Negro Women: Historic Resource Study (Alabama State University, 2003); R. Brian Wright, The Idealistic Realist: Mary McLeod Bethune, The National Council of Negro Women and The National Youth Administration (Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University Master's Thesis, 1999); and Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site: General Management Plan (Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, 2001).

1As quoted in McCluskey and Smith, eds., 171.
2 Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site: General Management Plan (Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, 2001), 59.
3R. Brian Wright, The Idealistic Realist: Mary McLeod Bethune, The National Council of Negro Women and The National Youth Administration (Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University Master's Thesis, 1999), 22.
4 As quoted in McCluskey and Smith, eds., 48.
5Smith, 54.
6 Ibid., 158.
7 As quoted in McCluskey and Smith, 174.
8Smith, 178.
9Ibid., 241.
10Ibid., 224.


Comments or Questions

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