The Mary McLeod Bethune Council House was the private residence of civil rights leader, educator, and stateswoman Mary McLeod Bethune, who lived at the house from 1943 to 1949. The house also served as the first headquarters of the National Council of Negro Women from 1943 to 1966. The house is overseen by the National Park Service as part of the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site and is located within the Logan Circle Historic District.
Mary McLeod Bethune was born in 1875, in Mayesville,
South Carolina, to former slaves. As the fifteenth of seventeen children in her
family, Mary was one of the few children in her family not born into slavery. This
provided her the opportunity to attend school and bring what she learned home
to her family. Growing up in the oppressive Reconstruction era, Mary was inspired
to become a teacher and empower black children, especially girls.
In 1904, Bethune founded the Daytona Normal and
Industrial Institute for Negro Girls in Daytona, Florida. Starting out with
only five students, she helped grow the school to more 250 students over the
next few years. Bethune served as the school’s president and she remained its
leader even after it merged with the Cookman Institute for Men in the 1920s. At
the time, Bethune-Cookman College was one of the few coeducational institutions
in the South that offered African Americans a college degree. Bethune stayed
with the college until 1942.
Bethune’s mission of advocating for black youth extended
beyond she school. She became involved with a number of civil rights organizations,
including the National Association of Colored Women and Southeastern
Association of Colored Women's Clubs. As a nationally recognized educator and
activist, Bethune developed connections with political figures, including
United States Presidents. President Calvin Coolidge invited her to participate
a conference on child welfare. During President Herbert Hoover’s term, she
served on Commission on Home Building and Home Ownership and was appointed to a
committee on child health. In 1935, she became President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s
special advisor on minority affairs, and was promoted the following year to
director of the Division of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration.
While part of the Roosevelt administration, Bethune recruited black women to
serve in the Women’s Army Corps, many of whom served in World War II, and
helped young people find job opportunities. In addition to her official role in
the Roosevelt administration, Bethune became a trusted friend and advisor to
both the president and his wife Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1935, Bethune also
started the National Council of Negro Women, which brought leaders of numerous civil
rights groups together to advocate for African American women and the distinct
issues they faced.
After leaving Bethune-Cookman College in 1942, Bethune devoted
her time to social causes and the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW). She
took up residence at the new NCNW headquarters in a Washington, D.C., a townhouse
built in the 1870s. The house included fifteen rooms for meetings and hosting
guests, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, activist Mary Church Terrell,
and United Nations delegate, Madame Pandit of India. Bethune helped represent
the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People at the 1945
conference on the founding of the United Nations along with W.E.B. DuBois. Under
the Truman administration, Bethune served on a committee on national defense
and an official delegate to a presidential inauguration in Liberia. As the
civil rights movement gained speed in the 1950s, Bethune remained an important voice
in national conversations, supporting the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v.
Board of Education. After she died in 1955, Bethune’s mission carried on.
The Council House remained the headquarters of the NCNW until
1966, when a fire caused significant water and smoke damage. The NCNW relocated
to 1346 Connecticut Avenue, while the original Council House sat empty. Once the
Council House was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975,
the NCNW began fundraising for its restoration. The house opened as a museum
and archive in 1979. In 1982, the Council House was declared a National Historic
Site, which acknowledged that the house had unique historical significance due
to its association with Bethune and the NCNW. The National Park Service
acquired the property in 1994. Visitors are welcome to tour the house to learn
about Bethune and black women’s history. The site is temporarily closed due to