National Park Getaway: Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site

Historical black and white photo of a group of women sitting around a table Large table decorated by a vase with flowers and lined with chairs
Around the table in the council room, the NCNW hosted heads of state, international guests, and conducted hundreds of planning meetings to further the Civil Rights Movement. (Education Department Meeting 1954 / NPS Collections)
Take your place around the table today while exploring the legacy of those who once gathered around it. (NPS Photo)

Tucked in a row of brick townhouses lining Vermont Avenue in Washington, DC, is a headquarters that played a pivotal role in advancing civil rights for African Americans and women. After a two-year preservation project, the doors to Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site have reopened. As furnishing and exhibits return to the house, the legacy of Mary McLeod Bethune, the National Council of Negro Women, and its many historic visitors remain within these walls and is felt outside of them.

Born in 1875 one of 17 children to Samuel and Patsy McLeod, Bethune grew up amidst the poverty and oppression many African Americans faced in the South during the Reconstruction Era. As former enslaved people, her parents were denied a formal education. Mary Jane McLeod’s formal education reflects her religious upbringing. She graduated from missionary-founded Presbyterian Church School at age 12, then studied at Scotia Seminary in North Carolina and finally Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, where she was the only African American student. Through her own schooling by missionaries, she recognized the importance of education in the ongoing struggle for civil rights. After her marriage to Albertus Bethune in 1898, the young family moved to Daytona Beach, Florida. With $1.50, she founded a primary school, which eventually grew into a college that today is Bethune-Cookman University. The school worked to empower African American girls and women with a formal education at a time and place where they had little opportunity for one.

Transom above door reading "1318 The National Council of Negro Women"
The Council House was was the headquarters of the National Council of Negro Women from 1943 to 1966.

NPS Photo

By the time Bethune moved to Washington, DC, in the 1930s, she already had an impressive list of awards, honorary degrees, and leadership roles in many organizations focused on improving interests of community, business, youth, education, women, race relations, and politics. Bethune’s crowning achievement was the creation of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) in 1935. Described as “an organization of organizations,” the NCNW united member organizations to educate, encourage, and effect the participation of African American women in civic, political, economic, and educational activities and to plan, initiate, and carry out projects that further civil rights. The NCNW attracted membership from other African American women’s organizations as well as religious groups, regional clubs, sororities, and masonic organizations.

Bethune established the headquarters of the NCNW at 1318 Vermont Avenue NW in 1943. In addition to being located in a racially-mixed community of professionals and middle-class businesspeople, the headquarters was only one mile from the Capitol Building and White House. Locating the headquarters in Washington, DC, reflected the NCNW’s national focus. Within these walls, the organization was influential in desegregating DC restaurants and theaters, improving health care and housing conditions for African Americans, and integrating African Americans into public schools and the US military.

Parlor with a piano, red carpet, fireplace, chandelier, and painting of Mary McLeod Bethune
The parlor was one of the most active rooms of the Council House. Here, Mrs. Bethune and other Presidents of the NCNW hosted receptions, award ceremonies and gatherings in an ornate room reflecting the refinement of the members of the NCNW.

NPS Photo

Each room throughout the house tells a story of the people who lived or visited within its walls. Many prominent visitors were received in the parlor, including including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, activist Mary Church Terrell, and United Nations delegates from around the world. Bethune was often a guest herself to many prominent homes, including the White House, and a valued advisor to national and international leaders. Among her many achievements, she became the first African American woman to serve as a division head in federal office with the National Youth Administration, was the only African American woman at the first meeting of the United Nations, and was successful in integrating African American women into the Women’s Army Corps (WACS).

The board room adjacent to the parlor hosted meetings of many great minds and leading figures in the advancement of civil rights and social change. The large mahogany table and chairs were donated from the US Capitol by Chicago's Congressman William L. Dawson at her request. Critical civil rights meetings were planned around the table, which included some meetings relating to the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom of 1963.

Wooden cane leaning against a corner
Bethune collected walking sticks believing them to symbolize refinement and leadership. This cane is similar to one that President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave to her as a gift.

NPS Photo

Inspired by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, her friend and colleague who is often referred to as the “Father of Black History,” Bethune was interested in establishing a National Archives for Negro Women’s History. African American women were encouraged to send letters, photos, and histories to the archives so they could have a voice in telling their own stories to future generations. Following through on Bethune’s vision, the NCNW formally created an archives, the National Archives for Black Women’s History, which opened in 1979. The archive collections were stored on site for many years until they were moved to the NPS Museum Research Center where they are stored in a state-of-the-art facility equipped with climate and humidity controls and proper security. The archives are available for researchers by appointment.

Next time you are in the Logan Circle neighborhood of DC, ring the doorbell or knock on the door of the Bethune Council House to explore her lasting legacy of power of education, political activism, and civil service to achieve racial and gender equality throughout the United States and the world. Stop by the Carter G. Woodson Home National Historic Site, less than a 15-minute walk away. Both sites are open Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Or explore the other sites of National Capital Parks-East and the greater Washington DC area.

Last updated: March 14, 2019