On paper, the New Deal programs enacted to ease the economic sufferings of the Depression were open to everyone, but in practice, racial discrimination often kept African Americans from sharing in their full benefits. A black educator and founder of Bethune-Cookman College, Mary McLeod Bethune was determined to correct that inequity. As an official in the National Youth Administration, she proved remarkably effective in assuring blacks access to its employment programs. But her efforts did not stop there. In 1936 she was the chief organizer of a group of Washington-based African American leaders known as the "black cabinet," whose self-appointed mission was to maintain steady pressure on the federal government to create better job opportunities for blacks. Bethune had no physical need for the cane she holds in her portrait. She used it, she said, to give herself "swank."
Harmon Foundation; gift 1967 to NPG.
The Harmon Foundation, a philanthropic organization based in New York City (active 1922–1967), included this portrait in their exhibition Portraits of Outstanding Americans of Negro Origin, which opened at the Smithsonian in 1944 and documented noteworthy African Americans’ contributions to the country. Modeling their goal of social equality, the Harmon sought portraits from African American artist Laura Wheeler Waring and Euro-American artist Betsy Graves Reyneau. The two painters followed the conventional codes of academic portraiture, seeking to convey their sitters’ extraordinary accomplishments. This painting, along with a variety of educational materials, toured nation-wide for ten years, serving as a visual rebuttal to racism.
La Harmon Foundation, entidad filantrópica con sede en la ciudad de Nueva York (activa entre 1922 y 1967), incluyó este retrato en Portraits of Outstanding Americans of Negro Origin (Retratos de estadounidenses destacados de origen negro), una exposición inaugurada en la Smithsonian en 1944 que documentó las aportaciones de afroamericanos notables al país. A tono con sus ideales de igualdad social, la fundación encargó retratos a la artista afroamericana Laura Wheeler Waring y a la euroamericana Betsy Graves Reyneau. Ambas adoptaron los códigos convencionales del retrato académico para comunicar en sus obras los logros extraordinarios de sus modelos. Esta pintura, junto con diversos materiales educativos, viajó por la nación durante diez años planteando una impugnación visual del racismo.