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Setting the Stage

In the years following the Civil War, newly-freed slaves made many political and economic advances as the U.S. government created policies intended to reunite the country while punishing Southerners for seceding. By 1877, however, the period known as Reconstruction had ended and Southerners once again gained political control in their states. Determined to keep African Americans from fully participating in mainstream American life, Southern leaders passed state and local laws that required racial segregation. In 1896, the Supreme Court's Plessy v. Ferguson ruling declared that racial segregation was constitutional as long as the facilities for blacks and whites were equal. In reality, facilities for African Americans were seldom equal to those reserved for whites. Schools for African American children in southern communities, for example, were either nonexistent or substandard. As a result, most African Americans struggled to obtain a basic education. Without sufficient opportunities to attend school, these children did not have a fair chance to improve their situations.

African American women had even fewer opportunities because they faced both gender and race discrimination. In the early 20th century, women's groups were continuing to fight for the right to vote, but these groups often denied membership to African American women. While white women who worked outside the home generally held clerical or sales jobs, the vast majority of African American women worked as farm laborers or domestic servants. As one historian claimed, African American women were "so hampered by the multiple burdens of gender, race, and class that of all groups in the nation, they have been on the farthest fringes of opportunity, economic security, and civic participation."1

Out of this oppressive climate, Mary McLeod Bethune rose to international prominence as a political activist. The child of former slaves, Bethune was fortunate enough to receive an education. Wanting to give other children of her race the same opportunity, she opened a school for African American girls in 1904. From very humble beginnings, this small school in Florida eventually grew into a fully accredited, co-educational university. Bethune's continued determination to improve the lives of all African Americans, and African American women in particular, led her to become active in several women's clubs as well as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 1935, she founded the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) to give African American women a means to be heard on the national level. In 1943, Bethune and the NCNW purchased a townhouse in Washington, D.C. to serve as a headquarters. From this building, NCNW coordinated national efforts to end discrimination and improve education, healthcare, and job opportunities for African Americans. Today, the site is administered by the National Park Service and is known as the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site.

1Audrey Thomas McCluskey and Elaine M. Smith, eds., Mary McLeod Bethune: Building a Better World: Essays and Selected Documents (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1999), 131.

 

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