The National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) mission is to lead, empower and advocate for women of African descent, their families and communities.
It is our pledge to make a lasting contribution to all that is finest and best in America, to cherish and enrich her heritage of freedom and progress by working for the integration of all her people regardless of race, creed or national origin, into her spiritual, social, cultural, civic and economic life, and thus aid her to achieve the glorious destiny of a true and unfettered democracy.
National Council Negro Women (NCNW) is an “organization of organizations,” comprised of 330 campus and community-based sections and 33 national women’s organizations that enlightens, inspires, and connects more than 2,000,000 women and men. Its mission is to lead, advocate for, and empower women of African descent, their families, and communities. It was founded in 1935 by Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, an influential educator and activist, and for more than fifty years, the iconic Dr. Dorothy Height was president of NCNW.
Today, the NCNW programs are grounded on a foundation of critical concerns that are now “NCNW Priorities.” Our organization promotes education; encourages entrepreneurship, financial literacy, and economic stability; educates women about health and promotes healthcare access, and promotes civic engagement and advocates for sound public policy and social justice.
Extraordinary educator and political leader Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955) founded NCNW in 1935 as an “organization of organizations” to represent national and international concerns of Black women. NCNW fought for jobs, the right to vote and anti-lynching legislation. It gave Black women the opportunity to realize their goals for social justice and human rights through united, constructive action. The legendary Dr. Dorothy Irene Height led NCNW for decades, securing its legacy of enlightened leadership and influence. Mary McLeod Bethune, NCNW Founder and 1st National President, Advisor of Minority Affairs to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, said that she could not rest to see the unharnessed power among our women, so she called upon 28 national women leaders who responded to her call. She pointed out that what was needed was not another organization, but one that would bring organizations together. Mary Church Terrell proposed forming a “Council.” Thus, Mrs. Bethune founded the National Council of Negro Women as such – “a national organization of national organizations” at the 137th Street Branch, YWCA, New York City, December 5, 1935.
Mrs. Bethune envisioned NCNW functioning as a clearinghouse, facilitating networking and coalition-building, and advocating the use of collective power on issues affecting women, their families and communities. In 1937 in New York, the first community-based section was organized.
Through the years there has been growing appreciation and recognition of the value of a unified voice in the corridors of power. This has been expressed in different ways. What happens on Capitol Hill has direct bearing on the quality-of-life issues core to our community’s survival and well-being, and our voices must continue to be heard loudly.
When Bethune decided to step down as president of NCNW in 1949, she helped ensure that Dr. Dorothy Ferebee, NCNW 2nd National President, her personal physician and NCNW’s national treasurer, would be elected the next NCNW president. Not surprisingly, Ferebee put increased emphasis on healthcare education. Under her leadership, NCNW also focused on ending discrimination against blacks and women in the military, housing, employment, and voting. She continued fundraising efforts and participated in various meetings of national and international organizations. She was a member of the executive board of the White House’s Children and Youth Council and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
In 1951, Ferebee led NCNW in hosting a reception for the wife of the Vice-President at the Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C. This event was important because it gathered approximately 500 women from diverse backgrounds. As a result of Ferebee’s determination and leadership, it also was the first time that a major Washington, D.C. hotel had rented its main ballroom to an African American group. During her presidency, Ferebee also issued a “Nine Point Program” which called attention to the need to achieve “basic civil rights through education and legislation.” She worked hard to advance NCNW’s agenda while maintaining a full-time job at Howard University and dealing with limited funds and staff.
In November 1953, the Council elected Vivian Carter Mason, NCNW 3rd National President as president. A graduate of the University of Chicago, Mason had been the first black female administrator in New York City’s Department of Welfare. She was president of the Norfolk NCNW chapter and vice-president of the national organization under Dr. Ferebee. Mason’s administrative skills were beneficial in helping to better organize NCNW headquarters and connect local chapters to the national office. Under her leadership, NCNW members participated in numerous meetings and conferences held by such groups as the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women, the American Association for the United Nations, the International Council of Women of the World, and the National Advisory Committee on Health.
Mason served as president when NCNW marked its 20th anniversary in 1955. At a celebration in February, Mary McLeod Bethune praised the council members by saying, “I am very grateful to you, my daughters. I have been the dreamer. But, oh, how wonderfully you have interpreted my dreams.”1 A few months later, Bethune died of a heart attack at her Daytona Beach home on May 18 at age 79. During her lifetime, Bethune witnessed the tremendous growth of the organization she founded. Over its first 20 years, NCNW helped African American women break down barriers that often isolated them from mainstream America. Through perseverance, the council helped make it acceptable for black women to be a part of national and international affairs. Through increased interaction with white female organizations, NCNW tried to unite all women as equals and present a more accurate image of American black women to the world.
In 1957, Dorothy Irene Height, NCNW 4th National President/Chair, who had served for 20 years in various appointed positions with NCNW, became its fourth president. Height had the daunting task of leading NCNW during the early 1960s, a turbulent period of increased racial violence in the South as the Civil Rights Movement expanded. In 1963, she had offered NCNW headquarters as a meeting place for national organizations and individuals taking part in the March on Washington on August 28. During this period, civil rights advocates were being arrested in states such as Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. As tensions mounted, Height and NCNW launched a plan that called for racially mixed groups of women to visit rural communities in Mississippi each week during the summer of 1964 to foster better communication among the races and encourage voter registration among blacks. This highly successful project was known as “Wednesdays in Mississippi.”
To address the problem of financial support, Height made it a priority to revise the Articles of Incorporation and make other changes that resulted in the U.S. Internal Revenue Service granting tax-exempt status to NCNW in 1966.
“The progress of the world will call for the best that all of us have to give.”
Dorothy Height was a civil rights and women’s rights activist focused primarily on improving the circumstances of and opportunities for African-American women.
Born in Virginia in 1912, Dorothy Height was a leader in addressing the rights of both women and African Americans as the president of the National Council of Negro Women. In the 1990s, she drew young people into her cause in the war against drugs, illiteracy and unemployment. The numerous honors bestowed upon her include the Presidential Medal of Freedom (1994) and the Congressional Gold Medal (2004). She died on April 20, 2010, in Washington, D.C.
Born on March 24, 1912, in Richmond, Virginia, African-American activist Dorothy Height spent her life fighting for civil rights and women’s rights. The daughter of a building contractor and a nurse, Height moved with her family to Rankin, Pennsylvania, in her youth. There, she attended racially integrated schools.
In high school, Height showed great talent as an orator. She also became socially and politically active, participating in anti-lynching campaigns. Height’s skills as a speaker took her all the way to a national oratory competition. Winning the event, she was awarded a college scholarship.
Height had applied to and been accepted to Barnard College in New York, but as the start of school neared, the college changed its mind about her admittance, telling Height that they had already met their quota for black students. Undeterred, she applied to New York University, where she would earn two degrees: a bachelor’s degree in education in 1930 and a master’s degree in psychology in 1932.
After working for a time as a social worker, Height joined the staff of the Harlem YWCA in 1937. She had a life-changing encounter not long after starting work there. Height met educator and founder of the National Council of Negro Women Mary McLeod Bethune when Bethune and U.S. first lady Eleanor Roosevelt came to visit her facility. Height soon volunteered with the NCNW and became close to McLeod.
One of Height’s major accomplishments at the YWCA was directing the integration of all of its centers in 1946. She also established its Center for Racial Justice in 1965, which she ran until 1977. In 1957, Height became the president of the National Council of Negro Women. Through the center and the council, she became one of the leading figures of the Civil Rights Movement. Height worked with Martin Luther King Jr., A. Philip Randolph, Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, John Lewis and James Farmer —sometimes called the “Big Six” of the Civil Rights Movement—on different campaigns and initiatives.
In 1963, Height was one of the organizers of the famed March on Washington. She stood close to Martin Luther King Jr. when he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. Despite her skills as a speaker and a leader, Height was not invited to talk that day.
Height later wrote that the March on Washington event had been an eye-opening experience for her. Her male counterparts “were happy to include women in the human family, but there was no question as to who headed the household,” she said, according to the Los Angeles Times. Height joined in the fight for women’s rights. In 1971, she helped found the National Women’s Political Caucus with Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan and Shirley Chisholm.
While she retired from the YWCA in 1977, Height continued to run the NCNW for two more decades. One of her later projects was focused on strengthening the African-American family. In 1986, Height organized the first Black Family Reunion, a celebration of traditions and values which is still held annually.
Height received many honors for her contributions to society. In 1994, President Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She stepped down from the presidency of the NCNW in the late 1990s, but remained the organization’s chair of the board until her death in 2010. In 2002, Height turned her 90th birthday celebration into a fundraiser for the NCNW; Oprah Winfrey and Don King were among the celebrities who contributed to the event.
In 2004, President George W. Bush gave Height the Congressional Gold Medal. She later befriended the first African-American president of the United States, Barack Obama, who called her “the godmother of the Civil Rights Movement,” according to The New York Times. Height died in Washington, D.C., on April 20, 2010.
Former First Lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was among the many who mourned the passing of the famed champion for equality and justice. Clinton told the Washington Post that Height “understood that women’s rights and civil rights are indivisible. She stood up for the rights of women every chance she had.”
On February 1, 2017, the United States Postal Service kicked off Black History month with the issuance of the Dorothy Height Forever stamp honoring her civil rights legacy.
“Greatness is not measured by what a man or woman accomplishes, but by the opposition he or she has overcome to reach his goals.”
– Dr. Dorothy I. Height