Mary McLeod Bethune (1935–49)

The founding of the NCNW was controversial, and effectively split the black women’s club movement, leading to the eventual decline of the NACW. Unanimously elected as president, Mary McLeod Bethune set about the difficult task of unifying the divergent national groups into a national council that could at once tap the expertise of member organizations and harness their memberships and spheres of influence. The founding organizations were widely differentiated in purpose, membership, and organizational strength. Several organizations required that members be college educated; others required that members possess professional training in specified occupations; one group focused primarily on problems of organized labor; another had no requirements other than the payment of dues. Some organizations had extensive programs and received wide recognition. Thousands of black women throughout the United States belonged to one or more of these associations.

The National Council of Negro Women was clearly an ambitious undertaking. Beginning as a national organization that proposed to carry out activities on a national level, the council, by virtue of its constitution, theoretically co-opted the membership of the affiliate organizations. The initial success of the organization depended upon unconditional support from member organizations, a well-trained volunteer staff, a cadre of highly articulate and visible volunteers, and carefully chosen projects and interpretations that could justify the council’s existence to the general public and the constituent membership.

The election of Charlotte Hawkins Brown, Mary Church Terrell, Lucy D. Slowe, and several other key women to serve as NCNW officers helped to quell some of the criticism and projected an image of unity to thousands of black women who closely scrutinized the public actions of their leaders.

The NCNW constitution defined the national council concept and the role of the organization in rather broad terms. The specific purpose of the council was to unite national organizations in a powerful bloc that could function as an instrument for distributing information from the leadership to the constituent memberships, and as a vehicle through which black womanhood could cooperate with national or international movements affecting questions of peculiar interest to women.

During the first year of operation, the NCNW consisted of national women’s organizations (affiliates) and life members. Within a short period of time, it became apparent that this structure was inadequate for implementing a national program. In 1937, local councils, known as metropolitan councils, were established in communities where five or more affiliated branches were located. Affiliates were asked to urge their local chapters to work with the metropolitan councils. Registered councils were set up in rural areas, and junior councils were authorized for youth. During the 1940s, regional directors were elected to aid in the coordination of programming with affiliates and local councils. Regional directors were seen as the lifeline between the national and the regional and local communities because the national office could not directly address the need for field services. In the early 1950s, the regional director’s broad powers were expanded by both constitutional redefinition and common practice. Under Dorothy Height, local councils became known as sections, and the regional system was supplanted by the state mechanism.

During the early years, the council was administered by a board of directors consisting of twelve officers, four members-at-large, and the chairpersons of thirteen standing committees. The board was comprised of the president and affiliate representatives. During the 1970s and 1980s, as affiliate representation became more pro forma and their attendance and involvement more sporadic, the board was expanded to include nonaffiliated women and additional sectional leaders. The national office was operated by a series of volunteer executive secretaries. The council had no paid staff until 1942, when Jeanetta Welch Brown became the first paid executive secretary. She was assisted by a stenographer, a clerk, and a team of volunteers. The addition of paid staff and the purchase of a national headquarters in 1943 provided the base necessary to propel the organization toward becoming a clearinghouse for information related to black women’s organizations and projecting the NCNW’s national agenda.

During Bethune’s administration, the NCNW’s national program, administered through thirteen committees, was carefully designed to achieve credibility for the council through affiliation and collaboration with organizations and associations in every area of American life. In addition to national women’s organizations, the NCNW extended its contacts to every major social, educational, governmental, and community organization. Focusing upon public affairs, employment, citizenship, family life, religion, postwar planning, consumer education, rural life, membership, personnel, and the publication of the Aframerican Woman’s Journal, the committees successfully used the media and collaborated with key national organizations, governmental agencies, educational institutions, and individuals to educate and effect change.

Working with the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), labor unions, and other organizations, the NCNW collected, analyzed, and distributed data regarding the employment of black Americans on federal jobs, particularly in the Civilian Conservation Corps and the National Youth Administration. The NCNW exposed the discriminatory practices of local communities that excluded black workers from government training programs. During World War II, the council systematically documented black employment in plants engaged in war work and, as a result of pressures brought to bear from many sources, the Fair Employment Practices Committee was established.

While the NCNW exposed discriminatory practices, it also impressed upon black workers their responsibility to maintain a professional attitude and appearance and to develop job-related skills. Taking advantage of public meetings nationwide, contacts with employees and employers, newspaper articles, and the dissemination of materials, the NCNW conducted a “Hold Your Job” campaign.

The NCNW campaigned for integration of black Americans into the military and fought for the admission of women into the women’s divisions of the army, navy, and air force. As a result of a series of conferences between Bethune and army leaders, black women were accepted into the Women’s Army Corps (WACS). Bethune personally recruited many of the first thirty-nine WACS. She inspected training camps and, when necessary, lodged complaints against discriminatory practices. The metropolitan councils sponsored programs for the WACS and took a special interest in their activities.

While the NCNW closely monitored the government, it also gave strong support to government programs. By sponsoring “We Serve America” programs, encouraging local councils to “Buy Bonds and Be Free,” and launching the Harriet Tubman Liberty Ship, the NCNW membership stressed its patriotism.

The council did not limit its associations to black women’s organizations. It actively worked with the national board of the YWCA, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the NCW, the National Urban League, the League of Women Voters, the National Council of Church Women, the National Council of Jewish Women, and the National Council of Catholic Women to educate and effect programs targeting the elimination of racism and sexism. In 1944, the council sponsored a conference to address the status of minorities in the United States. The council was an active participant and planner in numerous conferences called by President Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt. Conferences on employment, child care, and women’s participation in the war were attended by black women representing diverse organizations. Black women were appointed to serve on boards and conference committees for the War Manpower Commission, the Women’s and Children’s Bureau, the Department of Labor, and other government bureaus.

Bethune possessed a worldview. She felt that people must be aware of and become actively involved in the struggles for peace throughout the world. Her concern led her to join the Moral Rearmament Movement and support the idea of a United Nations.

Accompanied by Dorothy Boulding Ferebee and Edith Sampson, Mary McLeod Bethune traveled to San Francisco to witness the founding of the United Nations. As one of two consultants to the NAACP, she was able to attend this historic meeting and project the image and program of the NCNW. The NCNW was the only national black woman’s organization represented at that meeting. The NCNW sent representatives and observers to meetings throughout the world, and since that time has maintained an official observer at the United Nations.

At the end of Bethune’s tenure, the National Council of Negro Women was recognized as the major advocate for black women. Its advocacy was well articulated in the pages of the Aframerican Woman’s Journal. Edited by Sue Bailey Thurman, the journal informed black women of the major issues concerning women, targeted legislation that affected women and black Americans, highlighted the accomplishments of individual women, and projected the work of the NCNW. In 1949, the name of the journal was changed to Women United. The council also published Telefact, a newsletter that informed members of the council and its affiliates of news and important issues and events relevant to legislation, international affairs, and economic developments.