Our national headquarters is based in Washington, DC, with a historic main office on Pennsylvania Avenue that is strategically located between the White House and the Capitol. We also have two field offices around the country. The national headquarters acts as a central source for program planning.
Mary McLeod Bethune was an extraordinary educator, civil rights leader, and government official who founded the National Council of Negro Women and Bethune-Cookman College. Mrs. Bethune’s background as a teacher inspired her to open the Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls in Daytona Beach, Florida. On October 3, 1904, the Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School opened with just five students. Eventually the school blossomed to include a farm, high school, and nursing school. The school became the co-educational Bethune-Cookman College in 1929 after merging with Cookman Institute and was fully accredited in 1943. Mrs. Bethune proved her expertise not only as an educator, but also as an organizer and fundraiser through her work with Bethune-Cookman College. She employed her diverse talents when she founded the National Council of Negro Women in 1935. She envisioned the NCNW to be an “organization of organizations” that would represent the national and international concerns of black women. It would also give black women the opportunity to realize their goals for social justice and human rights through united, constructive action.
In addition to being an educator and an organizer, Mrs. Bethune was also a political activist. She was the first African- American woman to be involved in the White House, assisting four different presidents. But she had the most significant influence on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal Government. From 1936-1945 she served as the informal “race leader at large” for the administration. Mrs. Bethune was also one of the most influential African American leaders in the Black Cabinet, which organized the Federal Council on Negro Affairs. She also served as Director of Negro Affairs for the National Youth Administration, where she tirelessly worked to help young people find jobs and to secure funds for youth.
In 1974, Mrs. Bethune became the first black leader and the first woman to have a monument, the Bethune Memorial Statue, erected on public park land in Washington DC in honor of her remarkable contributions. She also became the only black woman to be honored with a memorial site in the nation’s capital in 1994 when the National Park Service acquired the Council House, Bethune’s last official residence and the original headquarters of the NCNW. Today the Council House offers a variety of educational programs and exhibits. Mary McLeod Bethune’s legacy of education, civil rights, and leadership continues to endure. Since 1943, Bethune-Cookman College has graduated more than 12,900 students. In addition, the college offers bachelor’s degrees in 26 major areas.
Today, the NCNW consists of over 39 national affiliates and over 240 sections, connecting more than 4,000,000 women to the organization! Mrs. Bethune’s dedication and remarkable achievements continue to inspire the mission and work of the NCNW.
When Bethune decided to step down as president of NCNW in 1949, she helped ensure that Dr. Dorothy Ferebee, NCNW 2nd National President, 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, NCNW 3rd National President 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, NCNW 4th National President/Chair, 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.”
To address the problem of financial support, 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 to NCNW in 1966.