City officials and some members of Congress have banded together in an attempt to pass a bill designating the Northwest Washington residence of celebrated educator and civil rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune a national historic site, thereby guaranteeing federal funds to supplement its restoration and preservation.
The historical significance of Bethune's home has not been officially recognized. The National Park Service, the agency responsible for conducting studies to determine historical significance, says it has no plans to do such a study on the Bethune property.
At a hearing last week before the House subcommittee on public lands and national parks, Deputy Park Service Director Ira J. Hutchinson said, "The designation of the Bethune Council House as a national historic site would recognize the national historical significance of the property. However, the National Park Service has done no study of the site to determine whether it is nationally significant, and we cannot commit limited NPS funds and staff to complete such a study in the near future."
"That's kind of a Catch-22," said Rep. John Seiberling (D-Ohio), chairman of the subcommittee and cosponsor of the bill in the House with D.C. Del. Walter Fauntroy. Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) has introduced similar legislation in the Senate.
Hutchinson's testimony set off a barrage of questioning from subcommitee members as to whether the administration doubted the significance of Bethune's three decades of work as an educator and civil rights activist. That was followed by passionate testimony in favor of the measure by private citizens and public officials.
"Although Martin Luther King Jr. is receiving most of the credit for leading the civil rights movement , it is my view that he benefitted from the work of Mrs. Bethune," one-time Republican mayoral candidate Arthur Fletcher told the subcommittee. "I liken her to John the Baptist because she was the one who prepared the way."
Bethune, who also was an adviser to four presidents and an international consultant on human rights, was regarded as the most influential black woman of her generation. She lived, worked and entertained in the four-story Victorian town house at 1318 Vermont Ave. NW from 1943 until her death in 1955.
She founded Bethune Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Fla., and the National Council of Negro Women, and served in President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "Black Cabinet" as director of the National Youth Administration's division of Negro affairs. One of 17 children born to former South Carolina slaves, she helped formulate many of Roosevelt's New Deal policies for integrating blacks into American society through better housing, employment, education and health services.
Calling Bethune "one of the giants of political history," Rep. Philip Burton (D-Calif.) challenged the Park Service's efforts to preserve a "balanced observation of history." Burton said that even in these financially austere times, the cost of designating the home a historic site would be relatively low. "I think the nation can afford it," he said.
By designating the Bethune house a national historic site, the bill would establish a cooperative agreement between the federal government and the National Council of Negro Women, the building's owners. The agreement would authorize the secretary of the Interior to supply assistance in marking, restoring and maintaining the property and technical and financial assistance for its preservation. The bill does not specify an amount of money for the project.
"To put a dollar value on it at this point would be pure speculation," said Johnny Barnes, Fauntroy's legislative counsel involved in drafting the bill. The amount would be determined through negotiations after passage of the measure, Barnes said.
The curator of the home, Guy McElroy, said the NCNW has raised $135,000 for restoring the facade and first floor of the house. Another $100,000 is needed to complete the restoration of the building's intricate architectural details, McElroy said.
Bethune purchased the house, nicknamed "Council House," for $15,000 in 1943 as the NCNW's first national headquarters. Part of the Logan Circle Historic District, it currently is valued at an estimated $500,000.
It became Bethune's last official residence and a meeting place for some of the legendary figures in black history: Dr. Charles Drew, Ralph Bunche, Mary Church Terrell. Many national and international leaders visited as well, among them Eleanor Roosevelt and President William V.S. Tubman of Liberia.
In her testimony, NCNW president Dorothy Height put it this way: "There has been an international impact at 1318 Vermont Ave."
Today, the building houses the Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial Museum and the National Black Women's Archives, the nation's largest such collections. In the home's front room, with ceiling-high bay windows, crystal chandelier and mahogany grand piano (currently being restored and not on view), a portrait of Bethune hangs above a marble fireplace. Photographs of Bethune in the same room decades earlier dot the walls; beside them hang manuscripts and letters documenting her role in American history.
Bettye Collier-Thomas, director of the museum and archives, said the historic designation is important because "Council House," unlike other house-museums, is a "functional, alive institution." Currently on display at the museum is an exhibit on 19th-century black women. Next year, it will present an exhibition on the history of black women's organizations.
"One of the unique things about this property is that we not only seek to honor Mrs. Bethune," Collier-Thomas said, "we're honoring black women and black people also."