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Determining the Facts

Reading 4: The National Council of Negro Women: Beyond Bethune

When Bethune decided to step down as president of NCNW in 1949, she helped ensure that Dr. Dorothy Ferebee, her personal physician and NCNW's national treasurer, would be elected the next NCNW president. Not surprisingly, Ferebee put increased emphasis on healthcare education. Under her leadership, NCNW also focused on ending discrimination against blacks and women in the military, housing, employment, and voting. She continued fundraising efforts and participated in various meetings of national and international organizations. She was a member of the executive board of the White House's Children and Youth Council and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

In 1951, Ferebee led NCNW in hosting a reception for the wife of the Vice-President at the Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C. This event was important because it gathered approximately 500 women from diverse backgrounds. As a result of Ferebee's determination and leadership, it also was the first time that a major Washington, D.C. hotel had rented its main ballroom to an African American group. During her presidency, Ferebee also issued a "Nine Point Program" which called attention to the need to achieve "basic civil rights through education and legislation." She worked hard to advance NCNW's agenda while maintaining a full-time job at Howard University and dealing with limited funds and staff.

In November 1953, the Council elected Vivian Carter Mason as president. A graduate of the University of Chicago, Mason had been the first black female administrator in New York City's Department of Welfare. She was president of the Norfolk NCNW chapter and vice-president of the national organization under Dr. Ferebee. Mason's administrative skills were beneficial in helping to better organize NCNW headquarters and connect local chapters to the national office. Under her leadership, NCNW members participated in numerous meetings and conferences held by such groups as the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women, the American Association for the United Nations, the International Council of Women of the World, and the National Advisory Committee on Health.

Mason served as president when NCNW marked its 20th anniversary in 1955. At a celebration in February, Mary McLeod Bethune praised the council members by saying, "I am very grateful to you, my daughters. I have been the dreamer. But, oh, how wonderfully you have interpreted my dreams."1 A few months later, Bethune died of a heart attack at her Daytona Beach home on May 18 at age 79. During her lifetime, Bethune witnessed the tremendous growth of the organization she founded. Over its first 20 years, NCNW helped African American women break down barriers that often isolated them from mainstream America. Through perseverance, the council helped make it acceptable for black women to be a part of national and international affairs. Through increased interaction with white female organizations, NCNW tried to unite all women as equals and present a more accurate image of American black women to the world.

In 1957, Dorothy Irene Height, who had served for 20 years in various appointed positions with NCNW, became its fourth president. Height had the daunting task of leading NCNW during the early 1960s, a turbulent period of increased racial violence in the South as the Civil Rights Movement expanded. In 1963, she had offered NCNW headquarters as a meeting place for national organizations and individuals taking part in the March on Washington on August 28. During this period, civil rights advocates were being arrested in states such as Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. As tensions mounted, Height and NCNW launched a plan that called for racially mixed groups of women to visit rural communities in Mississippi each week during the summer of 1964 to foster better communication among the races and encourage voter registration among blacks. This highly successful project was known as "Wednesdays in Mississippi."

One of NCNW's consistent problems had been lack of funds, caused in part because the organization did not qualify for tax-exempt status. Without this designation, foundations and philanthropists were unlikely to donate large sums of money to NCNW because they had to pay taxes on their gift. Height made it a priority to revise the Articles of Incorporation and make other changes that resulted in the U.S. Internal Revenue Service granting tax-exempt status in 1966. That same year, sizeable grants from the Ford Foundation and the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare allowed NCNW to begin a "nationwide network of Negro women, working with all segments of their communities, middle-class and poor, Negro and white, to help chart and carry out needed community service and social action programs."2 Increased funding allowed the council to expand and standardize its programs on the national and local level.

While the council enjoyed a period of substantial growth in the mid-1960s, its headquarters suffered major water and smoke damage from a fire started by a leak in the heating oil tank in January 1966. As a result, NCNW had to move its headquarters to the Dupont Circle area. The building that had witnessed two decades of NCNW gatherings and had stood as a symbol to NCNW members remained vacant for several years. Finally, in 1975, grant money enabled NCNW members to begin restoring the townhouse for the purpose of reopening it as a museum. On November 11, 1979, the Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial Museum and National Archives for Black Women's History opened to the public. Decades earlier, Bethune recognized the need to preserve records related to African American history, particularly ones focusing on African American women. NCNW's Library and Museum Committee had collected various materials through the years and showcased them in the Council House library. Occupying the carriage house behind the Council House, the archives today includes the records of NCNW, personal papers of African American women, records of other African American women's organizations, and a collection of more than 4000 photographs.

In October 1982, Congress designated the Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial Museum a National Historic Site. The National Park Service acquired it in 1994 and opened it to the the public as Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site on October 1, 1995. That same year, NCNW members proudly dedicated a new headquarters at 633 Pennsylvania Avenue, a prestigious address blocks from the White House and the Capitol. Dorothy Height continued as president of NCNW until l998 when she became Chair and President Emeritus. Today, the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site stands as a poignant memorial not only to Bethune herself but the many African American women who worked tirelessly to institute change in American society.

Questions for Reading 4

1. What challenges might Dr. Ferebee and Vivian Carter Mason have faced taking over NCNW while Bethune was still alive?

2. What were some of the accomplishments of each president?

3. How did Dorothy Height change NCNW? What particular challenges did she face as NCNW president during the 1960s?

4. Make a brief timeline of the history of the house. When did it become a National Historic Site? Why was this important?

Reading 4 was adapted from Dorothy Height, Open Wide the Freedom Gates: A Memoir (New York: Public Affairs, 2003); 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); and Dr. Bettye Collier-Thomas, NCNW: 1935-1980 (Washington, D.C.: The National Council of Negro Women, 1981).

1 As quoted in McCluskey and Smith, eds., 281.
2Dr. Bettye Collier-Thomas, NCNW: 1935-1980 (Washington, D.C.: The National Council of Negro Women, 1981), 19.


Comments or Questions

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