History of the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site
Prior to the 1860s, the area now known as Logan Circle, named after John Alexander "Black Jack" Logan (1826-1886), a Democratic Congressman and Union Army General from southern Illinois, was comprised mainly of farm land. During the Civil War, the area was a refuge for escaped slaves and freedmen who developed a squatter community. A racially mixed group of professionals and middle class businessmen began building homes in the area in the period following the Civil War.
Anton Heitmuller, a real estate agent and apparent land speculator owned several lots on Vermont Avenue. Sometime between 1873 and 1874, Heitmuller sold two of his lots to tobacconist, William Roose. Roose later built houses on his property and sold 1318 Vermont to John J. McElhone, a reporter for the House of Representatives, and his wife Mary in 1875. Following the death of John McElhone, journalist Frank G. Carpenter and his wife, Joanna, assumed occupancy of the residence in 1892. The Carpenter's retained ownership until 1912 when the property was purchased by Alphonso and Anna Gravalles. The Gravalles operated a Ladies Tailoring shop from their home. Mrs. Gravalles lived at 1318 for thirty-one years before selling the home to Mary McLeod Bethune and the National Council of Negro Women, Inc. (NCNW) for $15,500 in 1943.
The purchase of the home was made possible in part by a $10,000 donation from Marshall Field, III (heir to the Marshall Field and Company department store fortune), and contributions from the NCNW executive staff, sections, and affiliates. Comprised of 15 rooms, one kitchen, and three bathrooms, the "Council House" would serve as the first national headquarters of the NCNW, Mrs. Bethune's last residence in the nation's capital (from 1943-1949), and guest accommodations for out-of-town visitors. The "Council House" was furnished with the help of both individuals and organizations whose contributions were commemorated through the naming of the rooms. In the elegant front parlor, the NCNW received many prominent visitors including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, renowned organizer and activist Mary Church Terrell, entertainer Josephine Baker, and the United Nations delegate from India, Madame Pandit. From 1943 until 1966, the paneled Conference Room was the site of many meetings in which the NCNW defined its role in such historic decisions as the integration of blacks into the Defense Program and the nation's public school systems, and the desegregation of restaurants and theaters in Washington, D.C. A host of programs were initiated from 1318 Vermont Avenue to address the problems of inadequate housing, racial discrimination, health care, employment, and the preservation of African American women's history. The site was also used as a rallying point for national organizations and individuals who made the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963.
In January 1966, the "Council House" was damaged by a fire which started in the furnace room. While the building core remained intact, extensive water and smoke damage resulted. The NCNW was forced to relocate to 1346 Connecticut Avenue, N.W.. For nearly eleven years the house lay dormant. It was not until 1975, when the "Council House" was placed on the Washington, D.C. Register of Historic Sites that the NCNW successfully raised the funds needed to undertake the renovation and restoration of both the main and carriage houses. In the fall of 1977, the Bethune Historical Development Project began under the direction of renowned historian and author Dr. Bettye Collier-Thomas, and on November 11, 1979, 1318 Vermont Avenue was opened to the public as the nation's first museum and archives dedicated solely for the purpose of the collection, preservation, and interpretation of African American women's history.
The "Council House" was declared a National Historic Site by Act of Congress on October 15, 1982, and acquired by the National Park Service in 1994. Renamed the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site, the Second Empire Victorian townhouse stands as a reminder of Mary McLeod Bethune, the NCNW, and the many African American women who have shaped American history.
Last updated: July 17, 2020