The National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), the first black organization of organizations, and the first national coalition of black women’s organizations, was founded on December 5, 1935, by Mary McLeod Bethune. Since its Inception, it has had four presidents: Mary McLeod Bethune (1935–49), Dorothy Boulding Ferebee (1949–53), Vivian Carter Mason (1953–57), and Dorothy Irene Height (1957–98). Modeled after the National Council of Women (NCW), a white association that included few black women’s organizations, the NCNW was proposed by Bethune as an effective structure to “harness the great power of nearly a million women into a force for constructive action.”Prior to 1935, the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) was the foremost national organization of African-American women. Founded in 1896 as a national coalition of black women’s clubs, many of which were of local and regional significance, it had established an enviable record of achievement and attracted a significant number of black women leaders. As a young woman seeking national support and visibility for her fledgling school, the Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute, Bethune affiliated with the NACW (1912). Moving through the ranks, Bethune served as president of the Florida Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs (1917–1924), founder and president of the Southeastern Association of Colored Women (1920–25), and as the eighth president of the NACW (1924–28). It was the latter experience that convinced Bethune of the need for a National Council of Negro Women.
Between 1896 and 1935, over thirty national organizations of African-American women were founded. In addition to the NACW, there were college-based professional sororities and a number of religious, political, and professional organizations. The effectiveness of these organizations was frequently undermined by program duplication and competitiveness. Although a number of their members joined the NACW, few national organizations affiliated. It was Bethune’s perception that the NACW’s membership structure in some ways prevented it from affirming the level of power that the NCW wielded. When asserting their right to speak for black women, NACW presidents frequently quoted membership numbers. With the exception of Bethune, presidents serving between 1900 and 1934 cited a membership of 50,000. In 1927, Bethune laid claim to an organizational base of 250,000 members. The NCW, an umbrella organization for national women’s organizations, claimed to represent millions of women, members of its diverse affiliates.
Beyond the issue of structure, as president of the NACW, Bethune had experienced significant opposition to the promotion and implementation of her organizational agenda. Her primary goal was to have black women fully represented in national public affairs. Achievement of this purpose required establishing a headquarters in the nation’s capital and employing an executive secretary. She was also concerned about the lack of a clear feminist focus and commitment in NACW to women’s issues, and especially to working-class and poor black women. While Bethune was an ardent supporter, and frequently a part of the black leadership that defined key race issues and strategies, by 1928 she was extremely concerned about the lack of financial support NACW members and African-American women gave to causes and issues specifically related to the NACW and to black women. Bethune noted that black women spent an inordinate amount of time and effort raising money for male-dominated organizations and male-defined causes. Bethune’s focus on securing and maintaining a national headquarters brought her and her program into direct conflict with the old guard NACW leadership, which for years had made retrieval, restoration, and maintenance of the Frederick Douglass home a major fund-raising and organizational priority.
Bethune’s decision to found the NCNW was based on an astute analysis of the issues of the time, the weaknesses of the NACW, and her personal need for continued recognition as the leader of a major organization of black women. In 1928, at the end of her tenure as NACW president, Bethune began to recruit supporters for the development of a new organization. In December 1929, she invited the heads of all national black women’s organizations to meet in Daytona Beach, Florida, to discuss the development of a “National Council of Colored Women.” Bethune argued that women’s organizations were “more numerous and diversified and more keenly alive to the needs of the group” and “in a better position to make use of the Negro’s purchasing power as an effective instrument to keep open the doors that have remained closed.” She stated that the proposed meeting would forge new relationships among black women, and that the new organization would provide an unprecedented base of power for black women.
Between 1929 and 1935, Bethune held a number of planning meetings attended by key black women leaders. A national promotion committee, chaired by Bethune, was authorized to contact and inform every national organization of the purpose of the national council plan. Organizations were asked to consider the idea at their annual conventions, or in executive committee meetings, and to send representatives to the council planning meetings.
After six years of recruitment, discussion, and planning, Bethune had garnered the support of the fourteen black women’s organizations represented at the 1935 founding meeting, held in New York City at the 137th Street Branch of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA). Although NACW did not affiliate with the National Council of Negro Women, a number of its prominent members, including Mary Church Terrell and Charlotte Hawkins Brown, attended the founding meeting. Both Terrell and Brown argued against the founding of the NCNW. Brown, the president of the North Carolina Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, a supporter of Bethune and the national council concept, anticipated that NACW president Mary F. Waring would accuse Bethune of splitting the NACW; thus, for political expediency she contested a permanent organization. Terrell, the venerable first president of the NACW, had mixed feelings about the new organization. She told the gathering that “Theoretically I believe everything that has been said. But I can’t see how this organization can help. I do not see how the mistakes made by other groups will not be made by this one.”
Charlotte Hawkins Brown accurately gauged the NACW response, immediately delivered by Waring. Waring criticized and impugned the motives of Bethune and the founding members of the NCNW. Responding to Waring’s criticism, Brown stated that the NACW had “so devoted itself to politics that it could do nothing constructive. The main idea has been to elect a president.” Brown argued that the NACW had become “a political machine, a ballyhoo for section[alism].” She pointed out that there was no discussion of issues related to the place and problem of women in American life, and that no committees were appointed to investigate issues concerning African-American women.