The histories of 20 black women prominent during the 19the century will be on display when the Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial Museum and the National Archives for Black Women's History open Monday in Northwest Washington.
The museum is the result of two years' work by the National Council of Negro Women and is housed in the organization's former four-story Victorian headquarters at 1318 Vermont Ave. NW. The archives are in the carriage house behind the museum.
"Black women have made important contributions in this society. It is about time they received the credit they deserve," said Bettye C. Thomas, director of the project. Blacks have been neglected in white history books, she said, and the museum is the national council's attempt to set the record straight.
The museum will feature black women in the fields of education, journalism and entertainment and will include prominent literary figures and professional speakers. Washingtonians in the exhibit include Mary Church Terrell, founder of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs Inc.; Anna Cooper, a nationally known writer, and Mary McLeod Bethune, the educator and social activist for whom the museum was named.
According to Thomas, the museum and archives contain the largest collection of material relating to black women in the country.
"We have assembled more documents, pictures and material than any other organization. We have had an interest in preserving black history since the 1940s."
Thomas said more than 2,000 pictures are being restored and that art pieces and historical documents have been shipped to the museum for its opening.
The museum is on the upper two floors of Mary McLeod Bethune's former residence, which was recently renovated. The building has maroon panels that show drawings and offer short biographies of the 20 women. In addition, there are dolls, sculptures and other items recalling the accomplishments of these women. Some of the displays will be part of traveling exhibitions and will be changed periodically, Thomas said.
Among the central elements of the archives are documents of the National Council of Negro Women that date back to 1935 when Bethune started the organization. Thomas discovered these documents in 1977, shortly after the national council decided to reactivate its history project, which temporarily had been placed on a back burner.
Since 1940 the national council had urged its members to retain any documents about black history and send the material to the organization's national archives. But when the National Council of Negro Women took an active role during the '60s in the civil rights movement, it temporarily neglected its efforts to preserve black history, Thomas said.
In 1965 a fire in the national headquarters forced the organization to move to a new location on Connecticut Avenue and virtually abandon the former headquarters for nearly a decade, Thomas said.
When the organization decided to resurrect the preservation project of black history in 1977, it hired Thomas. After several months of work, she discovered cardboard boxes in the dusty carriage house at the rear of the former headquarters. With a flashlight, boots and courage, she discovered a rich history of documents and photographs strewn in boxes on the dusty floor of the small, dark building.
Although the council's archives have been restored, the organization is still seeking documents from other women's groups. It has already received the historical records from the National Committee on Household Workers.
Thomas said there are very few black museums in existence to preserve this kind of material. "Most of it is kept in basements and attics of individuals," she said.
One reason the national council began its collection of documents, pictures and memorabilia concerning these nearly forgotten black women, Thomas said, was because "we want everyone to know and understand that these women did more than sip tea at meetings." For years, Thomas said, groups like the National Council of Negro Women have been perceived by many as organizations solely for upper class blacks, a sort of social "old girls network."
She explained, however, one of the reasons Bethune left the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs and created the National Council of Negro Women, was to open the organization to as many women as possible.
Since its inception, the organization has been service-oriented. It has been involved in a variety of concerns ranging from education of black youths to indirect participation in the creation of the United Nations.
The organization, which has a few white members, has national headquarters at 1819 H St. NW.