National Council of Negro Women

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National Council of Negro Women

The National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) has been among the most influential African-American women's organizations of the twentieth century, particularly under the guidance of its founder, Mary McLeod Bethune, and its later president Dorothy Height. Bethune seized on the idea of an umbrella organization to bring together the skills and experience of black women in a variety of organizations. This national council would provide leadership and guidance to make African-American women's voices heard in every arena of social and political life. When Bethune began to pursue this goal in 1929, she met with some resistance from the leadership of other national organizations, particularly the National Association of Colored Women. But she was successful in convincing the skeptics that a National Council of Negro Women would respect the achievements and strengths of other groups and streamline the cooperative operations of black women's organizations rather than supersede existing groups.

The NCNW was founded in New York City on December 5, 1935, after five years of planning. The true signs of Bethune's diplomatic ability were the presence at the founding meeting of representatives of twenty-nine organizations and the election of such important figures as Mary Church Terrell and Charlotte Hawkins Brown to leadership positions. Bethune was elected president by a unanimous vote. The effectiveness of the council and its leadership was immediately apparent. One of its areas of greatest success was labor issues. With Bethune's influence in the federal government, the NCNW, in conjunction with other organizations, pressed for federal jobs for African Americans and was one of the forces behind the founding of the Fair Employment Practices Committee. Under Bethune's leadership the NCNW also established an important journal, the Aframerican Woman's Journal, which in 1949 became Women United. The council expressed an interest in international affairs, supporting the founding of the United Nations. From its founding, the United Nations has had an NCNW official observer at its proceedings.

Bethune retired from the presidency of the NCNW in 1949 and was succeeded by Dorothy Boulding Ferebee, the grandniece of Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin and former NCNW treasurer. During Ferebee's tenure, the council continued to press the issues with which it had always been concernedcivil rights, education, jobs, and health care, among others. However, the organization experienced a crisis as it moved beyond merely defining goals and issues toward providing more tangible services to its constituency. This issue carried over to the term of its third president, Vivian Carter Mason, elected in 1953. During her four years in office, Mason employed administrative skills to improve the operation of the national headquarters and to forge closer ties between the local and national councils. Under Mason the NCNW continued to develop as a force in the struggle for civil rights. Just as Bethune led the organization to fight for the integration of the military, Mason fought for swift implementation of school desegregation.

In 1957 the NCNW elected Dorothy I. Height to be the organization's fourth president. Height came to her work at the council with experience on the national board of the Young Women's Christian Association, eight years as president of Delta Sigma Theta, and involvement in a host of organizations and institutions. Height set out to place the NCNW on firm financial ground through gaining tax-exempt status (accomplished in 1966) and through grants from foundations. She was successful in garnering support from the Ford Foundation and the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to expand the scope of the NCNW's work.

Among Height's other major accomplishments as president was the construction of the Bethune Memorial Statue, unveiled in Lincoln Park, Washington, D.C., in 1974. The memorial pays tribute to the contributions of an extraordinary woman. The NCNW continued its commitment to preserve the history of black women through the founding of the National Archives for Black Women's History. Although the council desired such an institution from its founding, the archives did not become a reality until 1979. This collection preserves the papers of the NCNW, the National Committee on Household Employment, and the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers. The personal papers of a number of women are also housed there. Through this collection and through conferences sponsored by the archives, the NCNW has become an important force in preserving the records and achievements of black women in the twentieth century.

The list of organizations affiliated with the National Council of Negro Women is long and varied, reflecting the council's commitment to building bridges to create a united voice for black women. Affiliated groups include ten national sororities, the National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women's Clubs, Inc., the Auxiliary of the National Medical Association, women's missionary societies of the National Baptist Convention and the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and Trade Union Women of African Heritage. The NCNW has also developed an international component to its work. In addition to maintaining a presence at the United Nations, it has worked with women in Africa (in Togo and Senegal, for example) and other areas of the diaspora, such as Cuba.

The NCNW has been successful in creating a national organization through which African-American women can address the issues facing them and their families. It has enabled black women from a variety of backgrounds to design and implement programs and develop themselves as community leaders. The longevity and effectiveness of the council are the result of the willingness of its leadership to change and to shape programs and methods to the emerging needs of African-American communities.

See also Brown, Charlotte Hawkins; National Association of Colored Women; Terrell, Mary Eliza Church


Collier-Thomas, Bettye. N.C.N.W., 19351980. Washington, D.C., 1981.

Giddings, Paula. When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America. New York: William Morrow, 1984.

judith weisenfeld (1996)

National Council of Negro Women

views updated May 23 2018


NATIONAL COUNCIL OF NEGRO WOMEN. Mary McLeod Bethune founded the National Council of Negro Women in 1935 to consolidate the activism of African American female professional and political organizations. The council emphasized national politics, African American female employment, and civil rights. During World War II, the organization helped recruit African American women into the Women's Army Corps. By 1949 its membership was 850,000. During the 1950s, the council worked for voter registration, anti-lynching legislation, and the Fair Employment Practices Commission. During the 1960s and 1970s, the council promoted self-help programs for poor southerners. In 1979 it established the Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial Museum and the National Archives for Black Women's History.


Collier-Thomas, Bettye. N.C.N.W., 1935–1980. Washington, D.C.: National Council of Negro Women, 1981.

McCluskey, Audrey Thomas, and Elaine M. Smith, eds. Mary McLeod Bethune, Building A Better World: Essays and Selected Documents. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.

Anne MeisKnupfer

See alsoNational Association of Colored Women .

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National Council of Negro Women