[Founded in 1935, the National Council of Negro women is an "organization of organizations" comprised of 32 national women's groups and 300+ campus and community-based sections that enlighten, inspire, and connect more than 2,000,000 women. Its mission is to lead, empower, and advocate for women of African descent, their families and communities. This brief overview covers the NCNW from its founding up through the end of the 1960s.]
NCNW: New Deal & WWII
NCNW: Civil Rights Movement Era
NCNW: Wednesdays in Mississippi
NCNW: Online Information Resources
The two decades between the mid-1890s and the First World War are often referred to as the "Progressive Era." It is an era marked by mass movements against lynching, for woman suffrage, and for social and political-reforms such as ending political corruption, limiting industrial monopolies, promoting health and safety, reducing income inequality, and addressing slums, poverty, and labor exploitation.
Three major up-from-below mass movements shape the Progressive Era: Woman Suffrage, Populist, and Progressive. Woman Suffrage campaigns for the right to vote and hold elected office. It achieves victory with passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920. The Populist Movement is mainly focused on rural issues related to agricultural and sharecropping, and rural-industries such as mining, lumber, and maritime. It achieves some reforms but its wealthy opponents successfully use racsim to divide and eventually destroy it. The Progressive Movement is primarily city-based and focused on issues related to factory-labor, child-welfare, education, health, sanitation, and urban political reform. It achieves significant quality-of-life reforms that for the most part mainly benefit white middle and upper-class urbanites and white workers in the skilled-trades. It is weakened and then suppressed by the wave of hyper patriotic-nationalism that forces America into the First World War and then the post-war, anti-communist, anti-labor progroms known as "Palmer raids."
The Progressive Era of social and political upheaval also sees a rapid expansion of women's clubs, primarily in urban areas of the Northeast and West Coast. Educated, upper and middle-class women who have household servants to free them from domestic drudgery still find themselves restricted to home and hearth by law and custom. And since they are denied the right to vote, most are effectively barred from electoral politics. Womens clubs provide a socially-acceptable forum for them to enter and influence broader society and a way to effectively put their talents and social-position to meaningful use.
By 1917, almost a million American women are members of such clubs. The majority (but not all) of the clubs support the idea of woman suffrage — thoughbut necessarily the militant tactics of some suffragettes. While most women's clubs shy away from the more radical goals of both Populists and Progressives, the clubs do play significant roles in achieving child labor, education, consumer, health, and safety reforms. One example is passage in 1906 of the Pure Food and Drug Act leading to creation of the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
With but a few exceptions, however, women's clubs are segregated, white-only and show strong aversion against any public support for race-related reforms. In response, women of color — the wives and daughters of African American business proprietors, professionals, landlords, and socially conservative preachers — form their own Negro Women's clubs. Their groups are similar to those of white women except that they do oppose lynching and address other issues of civil rights, racial justice, and racial uplift.
While the economic resources available to educated Black women fall far short of those weilded by affluent white women, the Negro Women's clubs are closely linked to the Black churches and missionary societies that are the bedrock of African American communities. Which gives their clubs as great — or greater — influence in their respective communities as the white women have in theirs.
In 1890, the white clubs form a General Federation of Women's Clubs (GFWC), to coordinate their reform activities. In 1896, Black women create a parallel organization, the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). Its motto is "Lifting As We Climb." In addition to community issues similar to those addressed by white women's clubs, the NACW supports the anti-lynching campaign, Woman Suffrage, and economic uplift-issues such as job training, wage equity, and child care. Mary Church Terrell is its first president and among its founders are Harriet Tubman, Margaret Murray Washington, Frances Harper, and Ida B. Wells.
Regardless of race, during World War I most American women's clubs devote themselves to "home-front" support efforts. After the war, whites reap the benefits of the post-war economic boom known as the "Roaring 20s." But under the Republican administrations of Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover, nonwhite communities are savaged by a renewed, nationwide, wave of racism, lynchings, exploitation, and impoverishment
The Depression of the 1930s greatly increases economic hardship, deprivation, and desperation in the South and in northern nonwhite communities that are already enduring segregated residential ghettos, racist police violence, and a rigid caste system of employment discrimination. As the last-hired, first-fired, and lowest-paid, Blacks suffer poverty, homelessness, and hunger.
While affluent and middle-class African American club-women are not immune to the Depression-era realities faced by the great majority of Blacks, most of them are less directly and immediately impacted. And among them, some fear that association with advocates of radical economic and social change might undermine their social standing. But others call for going beyond charity, uplift, and community-improvement into areas of economic reform, social justice — and after the 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment, electoral politics.
In 1932, educator and civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune campaigns for Franklin Delano Roosevelt at a time when most African Americans who are allowed to vote support Republicans (the "Party of Lincoln"). After taking office, FDR includes her in his unofficial Federal Council on Negro Affairs, known colloquially as the "Black Cabinet."
Led by Bethune, in 1935 a group of NACW activists bring together leaders from 28 Black women's organizations to form the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW). Their goal is to "Advance opportunities and the quality of life for African American women, their families and communities." At a time when FDR's New Deal programs are highly controversial among the affluent and wealthy, the new NCNW publicly supports those policies in African American communities. And in alliance with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, they also directly pressure the administration on issues of racial discrimination against nonwhites in government and society. As history surges forward from Depression, to World War II, and then to the Civil Rights Movement, over time NACW women's clubs decline in political importance and the NCNW moves to the fore among socially-active Black women's organizations.
In 1935, President Roosevelt appoints Bethune to be Director of the Office of Minority Affairs at the National Youth Administration — an official, paid government position, and the first federal entity to ever be headed by a Black women. From that position she and her NCNW sisters advocate for nonwhite voting rights, desegregation, and inclusion of African Americans, and particularly Black women, in government leadership roles. Against the furious opposition of white conservatives and Dixiecrat segregationists they manage to make slow, incremental progress.
With strong support from both the NAACP and NCNW, Roosevelt garners 76% of the Black vote in 1936, winning a massive landslide victory. NCNW representatives begin to be invited to the White House where they press for more, and swifter, action on racial and gender issues. In 1938, the NCNW organizes a White House Conference on Governmental Cooperation in the Approach to the Problems of Negro Women and Children.
As a war against fascism begins to loom, the NAACP, NCNW, and other African American organizations campaign (unsuccessfully) to desegregate the military and (successfully) to open defense-related employment to all regardless of race.
In 1941, the NCNW as an organization becomes part of the Women's Interest Section of the War Department's Bureau of Public Relations where they advocate for including Black women in the U.S. military. The following year — with America now fighting in World War II — a small number of Black women begin to be accepted into the Women's Army Corps (WAC) over the fierce objections of white segregationists both within and without the military. The Black WACs serve in segregated units and endure pervasive racial discrimination. By the end of the war, 5% of all WACs are African American. The Navy adamantly opposes allowing Black women to join the Women Accepted for Voluntery Emergency Service (WAVES) until Roosevelt finally orders the Pentagon brass to accept African American women in late 1944.
In turn, Dorothy Ferebee, Vivian Mason, and then Dorothy Height succeed Mary McLeod Bethune as head of the NCNW after she retires in 1949. Under their leadership, the organization engages in voter registration, political and education, and community development. Rather than personally engaging in direct action, many national and local NCNW leaders see their role as lobbying elected officials, financially supporting civil rights activities, and exerting the moral authority and social standing of their 850,000 members.
Both Mason and then Height meet, work with, and share speaking platforms with Dr. King (whose wife, Coretta, is an NCNW member). During the Montgomery Bus Boycott Mason raises funds, features Rosa Parks as a guest speaker at an NCNW national meeting, joins Dr. King in addressing the marchers at the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in 1957, and invites him to address the annual NCNW convention. Later, she collaborates with SCLC on its voter-registration Crusade for Citizenship from 1957-1960.
Dorothy Height assumes leadership of the NCNW in 1958 — a position she then holds for the next 32 years. She continues Mason's collaboration with Dr. King, co-sponsoring with him the 1962 American Negro Leadership Conference on Africa and meeting with President Kennedy to urge his support for conference resolutions against apartheid in South Africa. In 1963, NCNW joins five other major national civil rights organizations to form the Council for United Civil Rights Leadership.
Inspired by, and responding to, the Black Power movement, in the late 1969s NCNW changes its slogan from "Faith, Leadership, Culture" to "Commitment, Unity, and Self-Reliance." As the 1960s evolve into the '70s and '80s, the NCNW continues to work with philanthropic networks in support of the Black community — particularly in Mississippi where it funds agricultural endeavors under the leadership of Fannie Lou Hamer.
In October of 1963, Hundreds of Black women and men in Selma Alabama are harassed and denied when they attempt to register to vote — and hundreds of Selma students are arrested for nonviolently protesting. SNCC project director Prathia Hall reaches out to Dorothy Height of the NCNW and to Polly Cowan of the New York Citizens Committee for Children. They lead a delegation of prominant northern women to support the Movement in Selma.
In 1964, Height and Cowan meet in Atlanta with representatives from the Young Womens Christian Association (YWCA), Church Women United, League of Women Voters, American Association for University Women, National Council of Jewish Women, and the National Council of Catholic Women to seek their support. Wednesdays in Mississippi (WIM) is formed to bring into that state integrated teams of influential, organizationally-affiliated, northern women to show outside support for embattled Black communities and attempt to build bridges with white women who are members or leaders of the same national organizations. Doris Wilson and Susie Goodwillie direct the project from Jackson Mississippi.
During the Freedom Summer of 1964, WIM brings 48 northern women (two-thirds white, one-third Black) to meet with Mississippi Movement leaders, attend mass meetings, visit and send support to Freedom Schools, and then report back to civil rights sympathizers in the North. The northern Black women meet with local Black women, and the white participants reach out to local white women who belong to the southern branches of their respective organizations — with little success. "The Black women had a whole community to greet them; the white women were met with a lot of white community hostility, so we made sure there were enough of them to reinforce their courage and commitment. — Dorothy Height"
The WIM women generate support for the Movement in the North, but they are unable to mitigate the adamant opposition to any easement or reduction of white-supremacy, Jim Crow segregation, or denial of nonwhite voting rights by white women in Mississippi.
In May of 1966, WIM becomes a tax-exempt organization and receives significant foundation funding. It evolves into "Workshops in Mississippi" as it shifts its focus to supporting the efforts of Black women — including Movement leaders like Fannie Lou Hamer, Unita Blackwell, and Annie Devine — who are struggling to navigate the byzantine bureaucratic maze of War on Poverty and other agencies to win a fair share of federal jobs and funding for African American communities. WIM also funds initiatives by women who had been field organizers in the South with SNCC, CORE, and SCLC, and it hires many of them to work with women-led grassroots groups in California and more than a dozen Midwest, Southern, and Northeast states.
Today, more than 30 national women's organizations and over 300 local community groups are affiliated with the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) collectively representing more than 2 million African American women. Their current and recent campaigns and initiatives include: