The Council House

1892 Map of Iowa Circle
1892 Map of Iowa Circle.

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Pre-Bethune and NCNW

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 known as Iowa Circle and was comprised mainly of farm land. During the Civil War, the area was a refuge for freedom seekers and freedmen who developed a squatter community. A racially mixed group of professionals and middle class businessmen began building homes in the area during 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 U.S. 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 Carpenters 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 on December 18, 1943.

Front facade of Council House, 1980s
The front facade of the Council House upon its restoration in the early 1980s.

Library of Congress

A Grand Edifice

As Mary McLeod Bethune led the NCNW in their work on domestic and international concerns, the great need for a business-like headquarters weighed heavy on the heart and mind of its founding president. No organization with a score of national affiliates, dozens of local chapters, and hundreds of life members could hope to function effectively at this juncture in the nation's history without a national headquarters. Keep in mind that just 15 years prior, Mrs. Bethune, as the eighth national president of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), had led that organization to purchase its first national headquarters, making history as the first African American organization to have and own a permanent headquarters in the nation's capital. She was resolute in her desire to make history for the NCNW, just as she did for the NACW.

Since its inception, the NCNW's headquarters had been wherever Mrs. Bethune lived and worked outside of her beloved home, also known as "the Retreat" on the campus of Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Florida. Once she began her work with President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his administration by way of her appointment to the Advisory Committee of the National Youth Administration (NYA) in 1935, for the next eight years, she lived in several apartment homes in the nation's capital. Council work was done in her living room. There, her tired secretary Arabella Denniston would fall asleep, after the last volunteer had left. In 1940 at their annual meeting, it was voted by the membership that they acquire a national headquarters, "which shall be a memorial and shrine in honor of those pioneer Negro women leaders who hewed a pathway for us to follow." The women also wanted "a permanent meeting place which would be available to all national groups as well as to the local groups in that community, and which building would reflect the competence of Negro women to purchase and manage an institution."

When Mrs. Bethune learned of the availability of a row house with a garage at 1318 Vermont Avenue, N.W., she sent Executive Director Jeanetta Welch Brown to check it out, and after Mrs. Brown's approval, Mrs. Bethune moved quickly! 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. Initially 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 transient women due to legal segregation in the nation's capital. 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 Vijaya Lakshmi 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 African Americans 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. Sixteen years of planning and fundraising for the Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial in Lincoln Park was executed out of the Council House, starting in 1958. Additionally, the site was used as a rallying point for national organizations and individuals who made the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963.
Facade of house with tulips in the grass
The front facade of the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site.


A Lasting Legacy

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 Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial Museum and National Archives for Black Women's History, 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 an 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, it opened to the public as the 287th unit of the national park system on October 1, 1995. That same day, the NCNW dedicated its new and current headquarters located at 633 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W. Originally a hotel and later the Central National Bank and Apex, it is now known as the Dorothy I. Height Building, purchased for $8 million dollars. To this day, NCNW remains the only African American entity to own property on the historic avenue, once again making Mrs. Bethune's dream of African American women occupying a space in the nation's capital and in national and international affairs, a reality.

Today, the Second Empire Victorian townhouse known as the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House NHS stands as a reminder of Mary McLeod Bethune, the NCNW, and the many African American women who have shaped American history.

Last updated: May 29, 2024

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Mailing Address:

Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site
1318 Vermont Avenue NW

Washington, DC 20005



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