BLACK SOCIAL HISTORY Mary White Ovington
Portrait, c. 1910
Mary White Ovington (April 11, 1865 – July 15, 1951) was an American suffragist, journalist, and co-founder of the NAACP.
2 Final Year
Mary White Ovington was born April 11, 1865, in Brooklyn, New York. Her grandmother attended the Connecticut congregation of Samuel Joseph May. Her parents, members of the Unitarian Church were supporters of women's rights and had been involved in anti-slavery movement. Educated at Packer Collegiate Institute and Radcliffe College, Ovington became involved in the campaign for civil rights in 1890 after hearing Frederick Douglass speak in a Brooklyn church.
In 1895 she helped found the Greenpoint Settlement in Brooklyn. Appointed head of the project the following year, Ovington remained until 1904 when she was appointed fellow of the Greenwich House Committee on Social Investigations. Over the next five years she studied employment and housing problems in black Manhattan. During her investigations she met W.E.B. Du Bois and was introduced to the founding members of the Niagara Movement.
Influenced by the ideas of William Morris, Ovington joined the Socialist Party of America in 1905, where she met people including A. Philip Randolph, Floyd Dell, Max Eastman and Jack London, who argued that racial problems were as much a matter of class as of race. She wrote for radical journals and newspapers such as The Masses, New York Evening Post and the New York Call. She also worked with Ray Stannard Baker and influenced the content of his book, Following the Color Line, published in 1908.
On September 3, 1908 she read an article written by Socialist William English Walling, entitled "Race War in the North" in The Independent. Walling described a massive race riot directed at black residents in the hometown of Abraham Lincoln, Springfield, Illinois that led to seven deaths, the destruction of 40 homes and 24 businesses, and 107 indictments against rioters. Walling ended the article by calling for a powerful body of citizens to come to the aid of blacks. Ovington responded to the article by writing Walling and meeting at his apartment in New York City along with social worker Dr. Henry Moskowitz. The group decided to launch a campaign by issuing a call for a national conference on the civil and political rights of African-Americans on the centennial of Lincoln’s birthday, February 12, 1909.
Many people responded to the call that eventually led to the formation of the National Negro Committee that held its first meeting in New York on May 31 and June 1, 1909. By May, 1910 the National Negro Committee and attendants, at its second conference, organized a permanent body known as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) where Ovington was appointed as its executive secretary. Early members included Josephine Ruffin, Mary Talbert, Mary Church Terrell, Inez Milholland, Jane Addams, George Henry White, W.E.B. Du Bois, Charles Edward Russell, John Dewey, Charles Darrow, Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker, Fanny Garrison Villard, Oswald Garrison Villard and Ida B. Wells-Barnett.
The following year Ovington attended the Universal Races Congress in London. Ovington remained active in the struggle for women's suffrage and as a pacifist opposed America's involvement in the First World War. During the war Ovington supported A. Philip Randolph and his magazine The Messenger, which campaigned for black civil rights.
Mary White Ovington's
plaque on the
National Volunteer Pathway
After the war, Ovington served the NAACP as board member, executive secretary and chairman. She inspired other women to join the NAACP, and in so doing, made a significant contribution to the multi-cultural composition of the organization. NAACP fought a long legal battle against segregation and racial discrimination in housing, education, employment, voting and transportation. They appealed to the Supreme Court to rule that several laws passed by southern states were unconstitutional and won three important judgments between 1915-1923 concerning voting rights and housing.
June 1934, Mary White Ovington reached out and gave speeches to 14 different colleges. Her goal was to show the youth that the NAACP association was made up of blacks and whites. Ovington wanted black youths to understand there were whites who hated race oppression. During her speeches, Ovington would show the geography of all the NAACP location branches and how far the association has come. "They should know the power the race has gained" - Mary White Ovington
The NAACP was criticised by some members of the African American community. Booker T. Washington opposed the group because it proposed an outspoken condemnation of racist policies in contrast to his policy of quiet diplomacy behind the scenes. Members of the organization were physically attacked by white racists. John R. Shillady, executive secretary of the NAACP, was badly beaten up when he visited Austin, Texas in 1919.
Ovington wrote several books and articles, including a study of black Manhattan, Half a Man (1911); Status of the Negro in the United States (1913); Socialism and the Feminist Movement (1914); an anthology for black children, The Upward Path (1919); biographical sketches of prominent African Americans, Portraits in Color (1927); an autobiography, Reminiscences (1932); and a history of the NAACP, The Walls Came Tumbling Down (1947).
Ovington retired as a board member of the NAACP in 1947, ending 38 years of service with the organization. She died on July 15, 1951. Mary White Ovington I.S.30 Middle School in Brooklyn was named in her honor. She is one of the persons named on The Extra Mile—Points of Light Volunteer Pathway National Memorial in Washington, D.C. In 2009 she was depicted on a United States postage stamp with Mary Church Terrell.
Mary White Ovington was forced to resign from the NAACP due to poor health. In her eighties Ovington spent her final years with her sister in Massachusetts and in 1951 died in Newton Highlands, Massachusetts, at the age of 86. Ovington also wrote novels and children's books.