Continuing our celebration of African American History month, today we welcome a guest post by Rebecca Tuuri, author of Strategic Sisterhood: The National Council of Negro Women in the Black Freedom Struggle, which will be published by UNC Press in May.
When women were denied a major speaking role at the 1963 March on Washington, Dorothy Height, head of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), organized her own women’s conference for the very next day. Defying the march’s male organizers, Height helped harness the womanpower waiting in the wings. Height’s careful tactics and quiet determination come to the fore in this first history of the NCNW, the largest black women’s organization in the United States at the height of the civil rights, Black Power, and feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Offering a sweeping view of the NCNW’s behind-the-scenes efforts to fight racism, poverty, and sexism in the late twentieth century, Rebecca Tuuri examines how the group teamed with U.S. presidents, foundations, and grassroots activists alike to implement a number of important domestic development and international aid projects.
Strategic Sisterhood will be available in both print and ebook editions this May. Pre-order the book here.
The National Council of Negro Women’s Monumental Achievement
In the past decade our nation has celebrated the creation of two major public sites honoring African American history in Washington, D.C. In October, 2011, President Barack Obama helped to unveil a colossal monument to Martin Luther King, Jr. on the national mall. For fifteen years King’s fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha worked towards the establishment of the monument. Then in September, 2016, after thirteen years of planning and construction, the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened to the public. As of January, 2018, the museum has had over 2.5 million visitors. So high is the demand for passes to visit the museum that visitors who want to be guaranteed a ticket must purchase theirs three months in advance. While both of these sites are important markers of African American history they are not the first in Washington, D.C.
As I point out in my book Strategic Sisterhood: The National Council of Negro Women in the Black Freedom Struggle, the first black leader (or American woman leader) to have a statue on public land in Washington, D.C. was Mary McLeod Bethune, a prominent educator, politician, and NCNW’s founder. On July 10, 1974, the anniversary of Mrs. Bethune’s 99th birthday, dignitaries from around the world–including Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, Vice President Gerald Ford, and Speaker of the House Carl Albert–joined with a crowd of 18,000 to celebrate the statue’s unveiling. It took sixteen years for the NCNW, which Bethune founded in 1935, to raise the necessary support and funds for the statue. When Congress approved plans for the statue in 1960, they prohibited the use of any federal money to help build it. Through constant fundraising, NCNW solicited donations as small as the change from NCNW members’ coin boxes and as large as $100,000 from the United Methodist Church. The women of the NCNW insisted that while there were many other worthy fundraising causes in the 1960s and early 1970s, it was important that their beloved leader have a prominent place in America’s capital. It was equally important, they felt, that black children learn this history. Indeed, the Bethune monument depicts Bethune passing her legacy, represented by a scroll, on to two children.
The site chosen for the statue was Lincoln Park, about ten blocks east from the United States Capitol and named for the martyred president. Although former slave Charlotte Scott donated her first five dollars earned in freedom to begin a fundraising campaign to raise a statue to honor Lincoln, the resulting memorial hardly honored the efforts of newly freed men and women like Scott. Sculptor Thomas Ball’s statue shows a paternalistic Lincoln standing over (and presumably freeing) a kneeling slave. The statue was regarded by many at the time of the founding of Ball’s statue in 1876 as insulting to African Americans, but by the mid-twentieth century even more saw it this way. In 1958 community leader Dolphin Thompson approached the NCNW with the idea of building a statue to Bethune, who had passed just three years prior, to stand in contrast to Lincoln. The NCNW embraced this project thereafter. Not only was the NCNW able to erect Bethune’s statue in Lincoln Park, they also orchestrated turning Lincoln’s statue around so that his back would not be turned to Bethune. Instead, his figure now is facing Bethune, the embodiment of black self-determination and pride, and Bethune, not Lincoln, is the historical figure who has the honor of gazing upon the Capitol.
Typically historians view Black Power as on its demise by the mid 1970s, but that was hardly the story for the NCNW in the 1970s. As I show in my book Strategic Sisterhood: The National Council of Negro Women in the Black Freedom Struggle, studying the NCNW’s activism complicates our understanding of the meaning of Black Power as militant, separatist, and male-dominated. Instead, the NCNW sought to unite black women of all classes in this decade, and it experienced its greatest growth as an organization at this time. The organization’s establishment of this monument to its beloved founder bespeaks its power. As visitors make their way today to see the two new sites of African American memorialization on the national mall, they will hopefully also travel three miles to the east to view the visage of a remarkable woman, but they will also remember that it was NCNW women’s concern for black history, black leadership, and black self-determination that made such a memorial possible.
Rebecca Tuuri is assistant professor of history at the University of Southern Mississippi.