National Council of Negro Women: Unifying for Change

Officers of the National Council of Negro Women. Founder Mary McLeod Bethune is center. Public Domain


Mary McLeod Bethune established the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) on December 5, 1935. With the support of several African-American women’s organizations, the NCNW’s mission was to unify African-American women to improve race relations in the United States and abroad.


Despite strides made by African-American artists and writers of the Harlem Renaissance, W.E.B. Du Bois’ vision of an end to racism was not during the 1920s.

As Americans—especially African-Americans--suffered during the Great Depression, Bethune began to think that a unified group of organizations could lobby effectively for an end to segregation and discrimination. Activist Mary Church Terrell suggested that Bethune form a council to help in these efforts. And the NCNW, “a national organization of national organizations” was established. With a vision of “Unity of Purpose and a Unity of Action,” Bethune efficiently organized a group of independent organizations to improve the lives of African-American women.

The Great Depression: Finding Resources and Advocacy

From the outset, NCNW officials focused on creating relationships with other organizations and federal agencies. NCNW began sponsoring educational programs. In 1938, the NCNW held the White House Conference on Governmental Cooperation in the Approach to the Problems of Negro Women and Children. Through this conference, the NCNW was able to lobby for more African-American women to hold upper-level government administrative positions.

World War II: Desegregating the Military

During World War II, the NCNW joined forces with other civil rights organizations such as the NAACP to lobby for the desegregation of the U.S. Army. The group also worked to help women internationally. In 1941, the NCNW became a member of the U.S. War Department’s Bureau of Public Relations. Working in the Women’s Interest Section, the organization campaigned for African-American to serve in the U.S. Army.

The lobbying efforts paid off. Within one year, The Women’s Army Corps (WAC) began accepting African-American women where they were able to serve in the 688th Central Postal Battalion.

During the 1940s, the NCNW also advocated for African-American workers to improve their skills for various employment opportunities. By launching several educational programs, NCNW helped African-Americans gain necessary skills for employment.

The Civil Rights Movement

In 1949, Dorothy Boulding Ferebee became the leader of the NCNW. Under Ferbee’s tutelage, the organization changed its focus to include promoting voter registration and education in the South. The NCNW also began using the legal system to help African-Americans overcome obstacles such as segregation.

With a renewed focus on the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement, the NCNW allowed white women and other women of color to become members of the organization.

By 1957, Dorothy Irene Height became the organization’s fourth president. Height used her power to support the Civil Rights Movement.

Throughout the Civil Rights Movement, NCNW continued to lobby for women’s rights in the workplace, healthcare resources, prevention of racial discrimination in employment practices and providing federal aid for education.

Post-Civil Rights Movement

Following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, the NCNW once again changed its mission. The organization focused its efforts on helping African-American women overcome economic problems.

In 1966, the NCNW became a tax-exempt organization that allowed them to mentor African-American women and promote the need for volunteers in communities across the country. The NCNW also focused on providing educational and employment opportunities for low-income African-American women.

By the 1990s, the NCNW worked to end gang violence, teenage pregnancy and drug abuse in African-American communities. 

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Lewis, Femi. "National Council of Negro Women: Unifying for Change." ThoughtCo, Sep. 7, 2021, Lewis, Femi. (2021, September 7). National Council of Negro Women: Unifying for Change. Retrieved from Lewis, Femi. "National Council of Negro Women: Unifying for Change." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 31, 2023).