The National Park Service says it will go ahead with a controversial plan to relocate a black women’s history archive from Washington’s Mary McLeod Bethune house but is taking more time to explain the move.
The Feb. 12 announcement of the plan to move the National Archives for Black Women’s History was met with anger from scholars and students of Bethune, the renowned educator, civil rights leader and presidential adviser.
The Park Service said it wanted to move the collection — a trove of documents, books and artifacts — to its Museum Resource Center in Landover to care for it better.
The agency still plans to do that, spokeswoman Jennifer Mummart said.
“We’re just taking some time to try to make sure the stakeholders are on board and understand what we’re doing,” she said.
The Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site, at 1318 Vermont Avenue NW, was the first headquarters of Bethune’s National Council of Negro Women and was her last home in Washington.
Bethune, the child of former slaves, was born in South Carolina in 1875, and she died in Florida in 1955 after a lifetime of service in which she focused on advancing the rights of African American women, whom she called her “daughters.”
The archive is in a cramped, two-story carriage house behind the main house. The Park Service says the carriage house provides inadequate protection against flooding, fire and rodents.
The archive closed Feb. 18 in preparation for the move. The house, which Bethune bought in 1943, remains open to visitors. Mummart said the archive will reopen March 10 in Landover.
Jonathan Jarvis, director of the Park Service, wrote in a letter submitted Tuesday to The Washington Post: “A survey by our museum professionals found this irreplaceable collection at high risk. . . . The building has neither fire protection nor adequate temperature and humidity controls.”
“Sixty percent of the Bethune archive has been [at the Museum Resource Center] for nearly a decade,” Jarvis wrote. “It’s the best place for the full archive to remain safe and accessible to researchers while we determine if the Council House can be fitted with necessary protective systems.”
But critics said the Park Service has known for years that the carriage house was inadequate. They argue that moving the collection would isolate the archive from a site that is holy ground to students of Bethune and the history of African American women.
The archive would also be much more difficult for researchers to reach in Landover.
Washington Post opinion writer Colbert I. King said in a column last week that the Park Service was dishonoring Bethune and that planning the move during Black History Month showed that the agency was “clueless.”
The archive holds 100 years of letters, minutes, recordings, documents and other memorabilia regarding the efforts of black women to end discrimination and segregation.
“That place is sacred,” said Bettye Collier-Thomas, a professor history at Temple University and the first executive director of the archive. “That ground is sacred.”
“We want the public to understand . . . the full significance of this site, and why we feel it has been seriously neglected by the Park Service,” she said in a telephone interview Tuesday.
“By shutting down the archives . . . what they’re doing is reducing the site to nothing more than a place you go and look at some things on the wall and they give you a tour,” she said.
“We’re not asking for anything extreme,” she said. “We hold our government accountable for taking care of these precious historical sites. . . . It’s our expectation that they will do their job . . . fairly and equally.”
Collier-Thomas said Jarvis called her Friday. She could not discuss details of the conversation, she said, but she added, “I would not think . . . [the move] would be in their best interest, because there really is no public support for this.”
She said she wants the Park Service to provide an adequate site for the archive near the Bethune house, something that she said has been discussed in the past but never acted on.
Bethune, a powerful public speaker, was the 15th of 17 children born into poverty. During the bleakest days of post-Civil War racial oppression, she became a champion of education and a founder of what is now Bethune-Cookman University, in Daytona Beach, Fla.
“I think I have spent my life well,” she wrote just before she died. “I pray now that my philosophy may be helpful to those who share my vision of a world of Peace, Progress, Brotherhood, and Love.”