District of Columbia: Mary McLeod Bethune Council House

This site was Mary McLeod Bethune’s last official residence in Washington, D.C., and the first headquarters of the National Council of Negro Women. Now it is a National Historic Site where visitors may view exhibits, including special activities for children, interpreting Bethune’s life and work. In addition, the National Archives for Black Women’s History are housed there.

Site Office

Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site

1318 Vermont Avenue NW

Washington, DC 20005

ph.: (202) 673-2402

fax: (202) 673-2414

Web site: www.nps.gov/mamc/

The Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site commemorates the life of Mary McLeod Bethune and the National Council of Negro Women, which she founded. At the end of the twentieth century, it was one of ten National Park Service sites commemorating African American history.

The three-story, fifteen-room Victorian townhouse was used as the original headquarters for the National Council of Negro Women, and it was also Bethune’s last official residence in Washington, D.C. Furnished originally with the help of individuals and various organizations that believed in the cause, the site was where Bethune gained her greatest national and international recognition and developed strategies and programs to advance the interests of African American women and the African American community.

The mission of the historic site is to interpret Bethune’s life and legacy, to document and interpret the history of African American women in their struggle for civil rights, and to assure the preservation and restoration of the site from its most significant period, the years between 1943 and 1966.

Bethune’s Life

Mary Bethune was born Mary Jane McLeod on July 10, 1875, in Mayesville, South Carolina. Her parents, Samuel and Patsy, had been slaves on the McLeod Plantation. Several of their children had also been born into slavery, and many had been sold off to other plantations. Her parents were able to keep track of the family, however, through a secret slave network, and after the end of the Civil War in 1865 they were reunited.

The family stayed on the McLeod Plantation for several years until they had saved enough money to buy a small farm of five acres nearby. There Mary was born, the fifteenth of seventeen children and the first to be born on her parents’ farm. The McLeods were a devoutly religious family and generous to all.

In 1882 a black missionary named Emma Wilson began a school for black children in Mayesville, and Mary’s parents immediately enrolled her. The seven-year-old girl walked five miles each day to the school. At the age of twelve she heard a black missionary speak about mission work in Africa and determined that this was her calling. Emma Wilson was able to get a scholarship for Mary to attend Scotia Seminary in Concord, North Carolina, where she graduated in 1893. She then went to Chicago, also on scholarship, to Moody Bible Institute, where she graduated in 1895.

That year she applied to the Presbyterian Board of Missions for an assignment to Africa, but she was told that there was no place in Africa for a black missionary. So she returned to the South, teaching at schools for African Americans in Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida. After teaching for a while, she realized that blacks in the United States needed education as much as Africans did, and her life’s goal became to improve the education of young black Americans.

In 1898 she married another teacher, Albertus Bethune, and she had one son, Albert. However, the marriage did not last, and Albertus returned to South Carolina after six years and died in 1919.

In 1904 many African Americans were moving to Daytona Beach, Florida, to work on the new Florida East Coast Railway, and Mary moved there to start a school, a longtime goal of hers. With all the money she owned–$1.50–and packing crates for desks, she opened the Daytona Educational and Industrial School for Negro Girls on October 3, 1904, with five pupils aged eight to twelve.

She financed the school by selling homemade pies and ice cream to railroad construction workers, by soliciting funds from philanthropists and black organizations, and by staging concerts by her pupils. Although there was never enough money or resources, the school continued to grow, and in 1923 it merged with Cookman Institute, a school for males that was better endowed financially but whose student body was declining.

This merger saved both schools, and Bethune-Cookman Institute was founded. There was a faculty of twenty-five and a student body of three hundred. In 1929 it became a fully accredited college, and it awarded its first four-year degrees in 1943. That same year Bethune resigned as president of the college to devote more time to the national struggle for civil rights. By the end of the twentieth century, Bethune-Cookman College was enrolling about 2,300 students.

Bethune’s influence extended far beyond Florida, however. In 1927 she was invited to meet the governor of New York, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and at that time she became friends with his wife Eleanor. The next year President Calvin Coolidge appointed her to the National Child Welfare Commission.

The next president, Herbert Hoover, appointed her to the Commission on Home Building and Home Ownership, and when Roosevelt became president he made her Special Advisor on Minority Affairs. He also appointed her Director of the Division of Negro Affairs of the National Youth Administration, making her the first African American woman to be placed in charge of a federal agency. There were also several black men who occupied administrative posts in Roosevelt’s New Deal agencies, and together they formed an informal presidential advisory board known as the Black Cabinet.

Bethune continued to serve in a variety of governmental roles during and after World War II, but she was involved in other organizations at the same time. She became president of the National Association of Colored Women in 1924 and vice president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1940. In 1935 she founded the National Council of Negro Women, uniting many major national black women’s organizations. She was its president until 1949, living in the council’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Bethune moved back to Daytona Beach in 1949 and lived the rest of her life there. In 1955 she wrote an article, published after her death in the August issue of Ebony magazine, called “My Last Will and Testament.” Knowing that her life was drawing to a close, she outlined her legacy to the world. Realizing that her worldly possessions were few but her experiences were rich, Bethune wrote that she was leaving all African Americans the legacies of love, hope, the challenge of developing confidence in one another, thirst for education, respect for the uses of power, faith, racial dignity, desire to live harmoniously with others, and responsibility to young people. She died on May 18, 1955, and is buried on the campus of Bethune-Cookman College.

The Council House

The Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site has exhibits on Bethune and the National Council of Negro Women, including original furnishings and historic photographs depicting the house during the 1940’s. Park rangers give guided tours of the house, which include a video on Bethune’s life.

For children and their families or small school groups, a treasure hunt through the house is available. This is an interactive tour using a series of questions and activities. There are other kinds of special programs for children and teachers as well, including workshops. There are also book signings, lectures, and changing exhibits, as well as year-round concert, lecture, and film series.

The Bethune Citizens Program provides students the opportunity to use Bethune’s “Last Will and Testament” to make positive changes in their communities. This program is a youth volunteer initiative to enhance self-esteem, promote leadership, and support community service.

Rangers are also available to visit classrooms and talk about Bethune, the Council House, the National Park Service, or African American women’s history. In addition, educational materials are available free to teachers, including copies of historic documents, posters, exhibit guides, and teacher’s guides. These include packets on “A Week in the Life of Mary McLeod Bethune” and “Behind the Scenes in the Civil Rights Movement.” The packets provide primary source materials that teachers can incorporate into their lesson plans, as well as activities and assignments.

The Archives

The site also houses the National Archives for Black Women’s History, which are kept in the carriage house. This is the nation’s largest repository of materials relating to black women, including correspondence, photographs, and speeches about Bethune, the National Council of Negro Women, and other black women and their organizations.

Collections in the archives cover a wide range of subjects: civil rights, consumer issues, education, employment, health, housing, international issues, religion, and women’s issues. There are over six hundred linear feet of manuscripts, a small library and vertical file on African American women’s history, and over four hundred photographs and other audiovisual materials.

Researchers of all ages can use the archives, but only by appointment. After a researcher submits a written request outlining the topic of research and naming the days he or she is available, the archivist sets up an appointment with the researcher.

History of the Council House

The Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site is located in the Logan Circle Historic District. The Council House was built as a private residence in 1874 and went through several hands until it was sold to Bethune for $15,500 in 1943. The money for the purchase was raised through a large donation from Marshall Field and contributions from staff, sections, and affiliates of the National Council of Negro Women.

The conference room was the site of many meetings and the initiation of many programs to address problems of housing, racial discrimination, health care, employment, and the preservation of African American women’s history. Eleanor Roosevelt was also a guest at the house, and in 1963 it was a rallying point for the March on Washington.

The building was damaged by fire in January, 1966, and the National Council of Negro Women relocated to another building. The house lay dormant for eleven years until 1975, when it was placed on the District of Columbia Register of Historic Sites and funds were raised to renovate and restore both the main and carriage houses.

In the fall of 1977 the Bethune Historical Development Project began, and in November, 1979, the house was opened to the public as a museum. It was declared a National Historic Site by act of Congress in 1982 and acquired by the National Park Service in 1994. The Council House is open from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Monday through Saturday except holidays.

For Further Information

  • Greene, Carol. Mary McLeod Bethune: Champion for Education. Chicago: Children’s Press, 1993. A biography for young people.
  • Halasa, Malu. Mary McLeod Bethune. New York: Chelsea House, 1989. A detailed and helpful biography written for a young audience but informational for all readers.
  • Holt, Rackham. Mary McLeod Bethune, a Biography. New York: Doubleday, 1964. Tells and interprets Bethune’s life, focusing on her educational and governmental work.
  • Peare, Catherine Owens. Mary McLeod Bethune. New York: Vanguard, 1951. Examines Bethune’s life from her childhood to the 1940’s, combining imagined dialogue with narrative to tell about her life.
  • Sitkoff, Harvard. A New Deal for Blacks: The Emergence of Civil Rights as a National Issue. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978. Examines Bethune’s work during Roosevelt’s New Deal and her campaigns for civil rights.
  • Sterne, Emma Geddes. Mary McLeod Bethune. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1957. A look at Bethune as a woman committed to improving the lives of African American women and unifying women across racial lines.