The past and future of African-American leadership met at the intersection of Seventh Street and Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest in Washington, D.C. when President Obama’s parade motorcade rolled by the historic National Council of Negro Women headquarters on Inauguration Day.
Obama, who was sworn in for his second term Jan. 21, became the latest in a long line of presidents on their way to the White House to pass the pink building that is home to the venerable Black women’s organization.
As they had in 2009 and so many times before, the members of the illustrious NCNW shared food and fellowship as they milled about televisions, watching the swearing-in ceremony, then waited for the president and his party to finish the traditional Inauguration Day Luncheon before their journey to the White House.
They had hoped Obama would stop and walk part of the parade route in front of their headquarters, but he did not alight from the car until he was some distance away.
For more than 50 years, the face of the NCNW was Dr. Dorothy I. Height, a civil rights activist who also had been an advisor to Obama and many of the politically powerful in Washington and elsewhere.
The members and their guests huddled around the television as the swearing-in ceremony began. As they caught the first glimpse of First Lady Michelle Obama’s inauguration outfit, they cheered and applauded. A few moments later, when the president walked out onto the Capitol steps, the entire lobby roared.
As the president took his seat near his family and political leaders, Height’s absence loomed large for the ladies of the NCNW. Four years ago, she had been seated on stage with Obama, his recognition of her contribution to his historic election, NCNW members said.
“She cared a lot about this president. She was in his corner and spoke at many affairs on his behalf,” said Edward Dees, 85, of Queens, N.Y., who sat in a second floor office to get a better view of the parade. “She made a vast contribution to that effort and it’s sad that she’s not here to witness [the reelection].”
To many at the NCNW, the day was a celebration of three great African-American leaders—Obama, as the first Black president; Height, as a key leader for women and civil rights; and Martin Luther King Jr., on whose holiday they gathered.
“There could not have been a Dr. King without a Dr. Height and the women of her stature,” said Stephen Whatley, of the District, the ANC commissioner for 4A03.
“Without Dr. Height and…Dr. King, there could not have been a President Obama.”
The NCNW was founded in 1935 by Mary McLeod Bethune, the legendary political activist and educator who served as the minority affairs adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Her goal, according to the organization’s website, was for the NCNW to be an “organization of organizations” that would focus on issues involving Black women.
In its 77-year history, the organization has grown to be one of the most influential for African Americans and women in the country. It includes 39 affiliated organizations for Black women and almost 4 million members around the world, officials said.
And everything is centered in that pink building at 633 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W. According to members, Bethune thought it was important for Blacks to “have a strong presence in the nation’s capital.”
There are arguably few locations more prestigious than Pennsylvania Avenue. The NCNW building is located between the U.S. Capitol and the White House.
The building was purchased in 1995 with the equity earned from the original headquarters, Bethune Council House, located at 1318 Vermont Avenue N.W. That property was purchased in 1943, according to the NCNW website.
“I remember Dr. Height saying this is the only African-American organization that has a physical address on Pennsylvania Avenue, the avenue of presidents,” said Louise Smothers, of Bowie, a longtime labor activist.
The mood was happy as hundreds of members, their families and friends gathered for the traditional celebration. The theme of this year’s watch party was “Witnessing History Unfold.”
As they celebrated, the members remembered and told stories about Height and previous Inauguration Day gatherings.
Dr. Thelma Daley, chairwoman of the NCNW, recalled Obama was scheduled to stop at the NCNW in 2009. “But because somebody opened a window on the third floor, the Secret Service did not allow them to stop,” she said. “This year, we have a huge, beautiful banner saying that the NCNW salutes President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.”
Smothers said Height’s absence has led to a void in vision and leadership that members are working to fill.