Thursday, 14 February 2013


In 1935, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, was the Advisor of Minority Affairs to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. She felt passionately that the collective, organized and channeled power of women could change history. When 28 national women leaders of African-American organizations responded to her call, she pointed out that what was needed was not another organization, but one that would bring the organizations together. Mary Church Terrell proposed forming a "council." Thus, Dr. Bethune founded the non-profit, National Council of Negro Women (NCNW): "a national organization of national organizations."

Early NCNW members, Dr. Bethune is front row, center and Dr. Height back row, center

Mary Church Terrell

Dr. Bethune’s Pledge for NCNW was:

It is our pledge to make a lasting contribution to all that is finest and best in America, to cherish and enrich her heritage of freedom and progress by working for the integration of all her people regardless of race, creed, or national origin, into her spiritual, social, cultural, civic, and economic life, and thus aid her to achieve 
the glorious destiny of a true and unfettered democracy.

Born the child of slave parents, Mary McLeod Bethune defied the odds against her. She became an extraordinary educator, civil rights leader, and government official who, in addition to founding the National Council of Negro Women, she also founded Bethune-Cookman College, which has, since 1943 graduated 13,000 students, with Bachelor’s degrees in 26 major areas.

A young Mary McLeod Bethune

The National Council of Negro Women has always had the mission to advance the opportunities and the quality of life for African-American women, their families and communities. NCNW fulfills this mission through research, advocacy, national and community based services and programs in the United States and Africa. The national headquarters, which acts as a central source for program planning, is based in Washington, D.C., on Pennsylvania Avenue, located between the White House and the U.S. Capitol.

Some of NCNW's programs include:
·    The high-profile annual Black Family Reunion Program Celebration, a two-day cultural event celebrating the enduring strengths and traditional values of the African-American fathers.
·     Early childhood literacy programs designed to close the achievement gap
·     A national obesity abatement initiative
·     A partnership with NASA to develop Community Learning Centers targeting traditionally underserved students
·     Technical assistance to eight Youth Opportunity Centers in Washington, DC
·     Maintaining consultative status at the United Nations to represent the voice of African-American women
·     Linking youth in Uganda, North Africa and the U.S. in a three-nation educational exchange.
·     Developing a small business incubator in Senegal
·     Partnering in the implementation of a large microcredit program in Eritrea extending small business loans and training to more than 500 women

Mrs. Bethune always said: 

"My people should have a strong presence in the nation's capital."

NCNW purchased the Bethune Council House on Vermont Avenue NW, in 1943, where Dr. Bethune also lived until her death in 1955. Today, it is home to the Bethune Museum and Archives, the only archives devoted to African-American Women's history, in the United States. By an Act of the 102nd Congress, the Bethune Council House became a unit of the National Park Service.

Bethune Council House

In 1974, Dr. 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 National Park Service acquired the Council House.

NCNW used the equity from the Council House to initiate the purchase of its current headquarters on Pennsylvania Avenue, in December 1995 – overseen by the then president, Dr. Dorothy I. Height.

Pennsylvania Avenue NCNW headquarters

Ironically, slave traders legally operated the Center Slave Market on Pennsylvania Avenue at the corner of 7th Street NW. Dr. Height noted, "It seems providential that we stand, today, on the shoulders of our ancestors with an opportunity to claim this site and sustain a strong presence for freedom and justice."

Center Slave Market

Dr. Height was an American administrator, educator and social activist. She joined the NCNW at the age of twenty-five and eventually served as president for forty years, from 1957 to 1997. Her tireless work with many organizations (including as president of the African-American sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, from 1946 to 1957) was so recognized and appreciated that she was awarded accolades, such the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994, and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2004. 

Dr. Height receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom

Dr. Height receiving the Congressional Gold Medal

Born in Richmond, Virginia but growing up in a steel town near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Dorothy was admitted to Barnard College, in 1929; but upon arrival, she was denied entrance because the school had an unwritten policy of admitting only two Black students per year. Barnard’s loss was New York University’s gain, where Dorothy eventually earned a Bachelor’s degree in 1932, and a Master's degree in Educational Psychology, the following year.  Dr. Height pursued further postgraduate work at Colombia University.

A young Dorothy Height

During the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Height organized Wednesdays in Mississippi, with NCNW volunteer, Polly Cowan, which brought together interracial and interfaith groups of Northern and Southern women, to create a dialogue of understanding.

Wednesdays in Mississippi

To honor Dr. Height’s longstanding service to NCNW, the organization established the Uncommon Height Awards, a year after she retired. Each year, the Uncommon Height Award is presented to the person or persons who exemplify the spirit and tradition of Dr. Height through a lifetime of service to others. Proceeds from the Uncommon Height Awards Gala help fund NCNW’s various programs.  Award Recipients have included: Oprah Winfrey, Sidney Poitier, Dr. Dorothy Height, Quincy Jones, Bill & Camille Cosby, Maya Angelou, Vernon Jordan and Marian Wright Edelman.

Dr. Height passed away, in 2010, at the age of ninety-eight. The impact she made on so many women and families is immeasurable.

Oprah receives the Uncommon Height Award
Sidney Poitier receives Uncommon Height Award

Quincy Jones receives the Uncommon Height Award

Click here to see a 3-minute video on Civil Rights and segregation, as told by Dr Dorothy Height; and here to see a 6-minute video on Dr. Height's thoughts on the Civil Rights Movement, yesterday and today.

Mary McLeod Bethune's and Dorothy Height's legacies of education, civil rights, and leadership continue to endure. As the National Council of Negro Women celebrates its 75th anniversary, this year, today, the NCNW consists of over 39 national affiliates and over 240 sections, connecting more than four million women to the organization. Dr. Bethune's and Dr. Height's dedication and remarkable achievements continue to inspire the mission and work of NCNW.

The significant challenges facing our families and communities today requires that the NCNW  find ways to optimize its resources to work more effectively. Historically, positive change has come about when coordinated, focused efforts have been put into action, on both local and national levels, simultaneously. This is why the vision of Mary McLeod Bethune is even more relevant today, than it was in 1935.

Sources: Wikipedia, National Council of Negro Women, Google Images, YouTube

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