Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Mary McLeod Bethune & Eleanor Roosevelt

BOND: Let's talk about Ms. Bethune.

HEIGHT: Oh, yes.

BOND: When did you meet Ms. Bethune?

HEIGHT: Well, in 1937, November the 7th, I was assigned from the Harlem YWCA -- I was new staff -- assigned to escort Eleanor Roosevelt into a meeting Mrs. Bethune was holding, and it turned out to be the meeting of the National Council of Negro Women. And after Mrs. Roosevelt spoke, and she was driving herself on up to Hyde Park, I took her back to her car, Mrs. Bethune said to me, "What is your name?" I told her. She said, "Well, we need you." So I've been back ever since. And from that moment, I don't think there was a week for the rest of her life that I did not have some direct contact. She was a mentor, a tutor, a spiritual advisor, everything.

BOND: So you met these two women at the same time.

HEIGHT: Same day.

BOND: And what about the relationship with Eleanor Roosevelt?

HEIGHT: Well, the next year, 1938, I was one of ten young people Mrs. Bethune -- Mrs. Roosevelt invited to come to Hyde Park, and we spent the weekend with her at Val Kyl Cottage planning for the World Youth Congress. And I became sort of like the chairman of that group. And we worked on how, as American youth -- and the conference was held at Vassar College in 1938 -- how it was we would work with young people coming from all around the world, with her as First Lady, in hosting this conference and in helping to shape it.

But also -- and this again was the time of the United Front, you have to bear in mind, where you had the communist countries, as well, coming into this conference -- so, once again, we had to figure out who we were and what we were standing for, and had to be prepared to stand up for what we believed. But Mrs. Roosevelt was right there every minute, knitting away sometimes, but always advising. And until her death, she was very close to me.

BOND: Now, something you said a moment ago about Ms. Roosevelt, she was driving herself. I can't imagine Mrs. [Laura] Bush driving herself.

HEIGHT: It's hard to believe there was a time when the wife of the President of the United States would drive her own Thunderbird, park it in a Harlem street for two hours, go back and get in her own car, by herself. Her only advance that day was Dorothy Height. And -- but she got back in her car and drove on to Hyde Park. There was no Secret Service. There was no advance. Shows you the difference in the climate.

BOND: Yes, yes, it is. Now, this relationship with Ms. Bethune leads you into the National Council, which surely you knew about before.

HEIGHT: Oh, yes. I'd heard about it, but it had only been organized two years. It was organized in 1935.

BOND: But in some ways it's a result of the early club work.


BOND: I mean, it's a natural --

HEIGHT: Yes. Mrs. Bethune had been the seventh president of the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs, and she said, "We do not need another federation of local clubs. What we need is," and she said, "Negro women, the trained and the untrained alike, stands outside of America's mainstream of opportunity, influence, and power. And what we need is an organization that brings the organizations together." So she founded the National Council of Negro Women as a council of national organizations. We later organized local groups, but those groups are not like a federation. They are chartered by the national body.

BOND: And this vision of bringing together these preexisting organizations, which reached into, I imagine, every community --

HEIGHT: Every community.

BOND: -- in the United States, was there opposition? Anyone against this?

HEIGHT: Oh, yes. And, you know, some people thought that -- well, even some people were ugly enough to say, "Well, Ms. Bethune organized it because she was no longer the president of the colored women's clubs." But as time has gone, here was a woman born in 1875 of slave parents, but she realized that collaboration and cooperation and coalition-building would one day be the only way. She also had that kind of vision. And so she organized it as an organization of organizations, and she also picked up the same theme that we had. Colored women's clubs said, "Lifting as we climb," and Mrs. Bethune said, "We need a unity of purpose for a unity of action, to leave no one behind." So that in a sense, one built on the other.