Tom Cummins knew a little something about Mary McLeod Bethune. He had read about the civil rights activist in the context of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s “Black Cabinet,” a group of African American leaders that the president and his wife consulted in shaping their New Deal programs. So when Cummins’ guidebook suggested the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site as an off-the-beaten-path tourist destination, he and his wife, Shelley Potter — who were visiting Washington, D.C., from San Antonio, Texas — were game.

The couple had been to Washington plenty of times before and had seen all the major sights. “We were looking for new places to visit,” Potter said as we made our way through the tall, elegant townhouse with our guide, National Park Service Ranger Vince Vaise. We moved through the stately rooms where Bethune, founder of the National Council of Negro Women, had greeted visitors, and Vaise pointed out her desk and telephone and an enormous dining room table around which she held meetings.

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