- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 17, 2007

It was from a Thomas Circle town house that Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of the National Council of Negro Women, organized, envisioned, brainstormed and put into action some of the programs that ensured gender and racial equality.

The town house, at 1318 Vermont Ave. NW, headquarters of the NCNW and Mrs. Bethune’s part-time home from 1943 until her death in 1955, has been preserved as a National Historic Site by the National Park Service. Now called the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House, it is a good stop for anyone interested in black history or women’s history.

“It is really important we remember Mary McLeod Bethune because she is one of the most important African American women with regard to her work with New Deal programs,” says site manager Robert Parker. “She was a powerful voice to create social change. The black intelligentsia met right here, focusing its energy and efforts for change in America.”

By the time Mrs. Bethune set up the NCNW Council House, she already was an important civil rights leader and presidential adviser. A visit to the house starts with a short video presentation about Mrs. Bethune’s life.

Mrs. Bethune was born in South Carolina in 1875, one of 17 children born into a former slave family. At a time when blacks, and particularly black women, were rarely educated, Mrs. Bethune attended schools run by missionaries.

With $1.50 in seed money and five pupils, Mrs. Bethune started her own school for girls in Daytona Beach, Fla., in 1898, the film explains. The school eventually became Bethune-Cookman College, a well-known historically black university.

Other highlights of Mrs. Bethune’s career: She was president of the NCNW’s predecessor, the National Association of Colored Women, in 1924; was granted an audience with Pope Pius XI at the Vatican; and was appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to be the national youth adviser to the Office of Minority Affairs, making her the first black woman to head a federal agency.

Many of the artifacts at the council house are photos showing Mrs. Bethune meeting with other black visionaries, several presidents and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

“Many important people sat right here,” says park ranger Margaret Coleman, one of the staff members who lead hourly guided tours. “They sat in this very room and hammered out plans to improve race relations in America.”

A tour of the council house does not take very long. The boardroom is on the first floor, as is the more formal living room with flags representing the countries of the many dignitaries and heads of state who visited. On the mantel are a pair of menorahs donated by a Jewish women’s group.

“Those represent that many women’s groups pitched in to help Mrs. Bethune,” Ms. Coleman says.

Upstairs, Mrs. Bethune’s bedroom and office are set up similarly to how they would have been when she was in residence. Another second-floor office is dominated by a large conference table that was donated when the Truman White House underwent remodeling.

The council house also features a small gift shop with items relating to black history and women’s history. A separate building houses the National Archives for Black Women’s History, an extensive collection of personal papers of black women, records of their organizations and nearly 6,000 photos that document black women’s lives and activities. The archives, well-used by students and historians, are open to the public by appointment.

The council house holds many special events throughout the year, particularly relating to Black History Month in February and Women’s History Month in March. Upcoming programs include the final week of the fourth annual Black History Film Festival of African American Women, which features a film and discussion every Friday night this month.

This Friday’s event is titled “Blazing Trails: Black Cowboys and Cowgirls.” A team of horse riders from the East Coast Rough Riders talk about black cowboys and the Buffalo Soldiers and also give a living-history presentation about Stagecoach Mary, the former slave who delivered the mail by stagecoach in Montana at the turn of the century.

On March 1, NCNW Chairwoman and President Emerita Dorothy Height and women and family rights activist Lillian Garland will give a presentation on women and the advances they have made.

When you go

What: Mary McLeod Bethune Council House

Where: 1318 Vermont Ave. NW

Directions: Take 14th Street to Thomas Circle. Make a right off Thomas Circle onto Vermont Avenue. The council house is one half block ahead on the left.

Hours: Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Sundays. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.

Admission: Free

Parking: Limited street and meter parking. The nearest Metro is McPherson Square.


• Mary McLeod Bethune Council House is the former headquarters of the National Council of Negro Women and, from 1943 until 1955, part-time home of its first president, Mary McLeod Bethune. The house features photos and artifacts from that era, when Mrs. Bethune, a prominent educator and Roosevelt administration visionary, played an important role in seeking equality for women and minorities.

• The second floor of the house is not handicapped-accessible.

• The Council House, operated by the National Park Service, features guest speakers, movies and lectures as well as programs for students.

• Tours are given on the hour; the last tour is at 4 p.m.

Information: 202/673-2402 or www.nps.gov/mamc/

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