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Mary White Ovington

Mary White Ovington Mary White Ovington (April 11, 1865-July 15, 1951), a descendent of New England abolitionists, devoted her adult life to combating racial discrimination and to enfranchising, improving material conditions and providing equal opportunities for African-Americans. A founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), she worked tirelessly for the organization for decades, promoting, fund-raising, serving in leadership and mediatorial roles through its stormy organizational period, and helping to set its agenda. For her many contributions, most of them unpublicized, the NAACP board honored her as “Mother of the New Emancipation.”

A few days before the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, Mary (or May, as her family called her in childhood) was born into an affluent abolitionist family in Brooklyn, New York, the third of four children. Her maternal grandmother, Emeline Franklin Ketcham, from Brooklyn, Connecticut, was a friend of William Lloyd Garrison and had formed her anti-slavery ideals listening to the preaching of the Unitarian minister Samuel J. May. Mary’s father, Theodore Tweedy Ovington, a merchandiser of china, had been a Congregationalist until he married Ann Louisa Ketcham. The family attended Louisa’s church, Second Unitarian in Brooklyn. Once a Presbyterian classmate cross the street to avoid walking with Mary. Although hurt by the snub, she was gratified at the recognition of her religious identity.

Her church had no creed; over its door was the motto, “The Truth Shall Make You Free.” Its minister for the first forty years of Mary’s life, John White Chadwick, was radical even for a Unitarian. A firm rationalist who disliked “religious sentimentalism,” he felt called to demonstrate “the essential piety of science.” He was a strong influence on Mary in her growing years. In a poem she called him “preacher, poet, man and friend.” After he died she wrote that Chadwick “never lost an opportunity in speech or in writing to show his full sympathy with the colored man.”

Mary attended the Packer Institute, a prestigious girls’ school in Brooklyn, 1888-90, then studied at the Harvard Annex (later Radcliffe College), 1891-93. At Harvard she worked as a research assistant for an economics professor who made a great impression on her, William J. Ashley, a socialist. She left college early, without a degree, when her father, whose business had suffered in the depression of 1893, could no longer support her. Her schooling over, she was determined to find employment so that she could be independent, not wanting to follow a path, typical for unmarried daughters, as a lifelong caretaker for her parents.

After serving as Registrar at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn for two years, Ovington was offered an opportunity to work in a tenement built by her employer, Frederick B. Pratt, in northernmost Brooklyn. For more than seven years, 1895-1903, she worked to improve conditions for the working class in what came to be called the Greenpoint Settlement. While there her interest in socialism revived and she joined the Social Reform Club. When, toward the end of her time at Greenpoint, she heard Booker T. Washington speak at the Club, she learned that racism was not confined to the South and that black people endured many disabilities even in the North.

Following her resignation from the Greenpoint Settlement, Ovington fell victim to typhoid fever, which kept her from working for a year. She later described the life she thereafter led as like the game puss-in-the-corner: “I was receiving no remuneration, so at any minute I might be tagged by my family.” In the end she uncomplainingly took care of her mother from 1909 until her mother’s death in 1927.

Determined that her further settlement work would be among black people, Ovington sought advice from the head of Greenwich House, Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch, whom she considered “one of my wisest settlement friends.” Simkhovitch arranged a fellowship from Greenwich House for Ovington to study the status of blacks in New York City. Based on this study and observations over subsequent years, Ovington wrote Half a Man: The Status of the Negro in New York, 1911. In this she concluded that the white prejudice denied blacks the opportunities they needed to develop their capacities. “If we deny full expression to a race,” she wrote, “if we restrict its education, stifle its intellectual and aesthetic impulses, we make it impossible fairly to gauge its ability.”

In 1904 Ovington had begun a correspondence with W. E. B. DuBois, whom she met soon after on her first trip to the South. He was an inspiration to her—“you have talked to me through your writings for many years and have lately made me want to work as I never wanted to work before,” she wrote in her first letter. “Is it as hard, I wonder,” she later revealingly inquired, “to be of a despised race as of a race that does despicable deeds—I believe not.” A decade later he told her, “you are one of the few persons whom I call Friend.” She learned much from DuBois, received from him introductions into the black community, raised money for him, and sometimes criticized him. Among whites she was his closest advisor and mediated between him and those allies whom he had unwittingly offended. Over the next few years, working with various progressive organizations and as a reporter for Oswald Garrison Villard’s New York Evening Post, she promoted and publicized DuBois and his new organization, the Niagara Movement. In an address given in 1906, covered by Ovington, DuBois demanded for blacks the vote, equal education, equal treatment by the law, and an end to discrimination and segregation.

In 1908, resolving to “give what strength and ability I had to the problem of securing for the Negro American those rights and privileges into which every white American was born,” Ovington began settlement work in the newly-erected Tuskegee Apartments in the San Juan Hill neighborhood of Manhattan, where the residents’ economic status was significantly lower than that of the white working class in her previous settlement work. The only white resident of Tuskegee, she was severely criticized for moving there. “The Negroes of this city are subjected to the worst indignities of any group,” she responded, “and just because no one else sees fit to do anything about it is no reason why I won’t.” Before long, however, she came to realize that the Apartments’ builder, Henry Phipps, would not support her settlement work and her hopes for an income ended. By spending her savings she was able to stay live at Tuskegee for eight months but then, reluctantly, had to abandon her efforts there.

In 1908 at Ovington’s instigation, an event occurred that rocked the sensibilities of the day and was carried by the press in cities far beyond New York. The Cosmopolitan Club, with a balanced interracial membership, had been meeting since 1906 in private homes. Ovington decided that, since there would be prominent speakers for their spring meeting, they ought to meet in a large restaurant. Reporters infiltrated the dinner and presented the event in newspapers nationwide as a scandal. Ovington received notoriety in St. Louis, Missouri as “the high priestess” of a “Bacchanal feast.” A Savannah, Georgia paper described the gathering as a “miscegenation dinner . . . loathsome enough to consign the whole fraternity of persons who participated in it to undying infamy.” “In the wake of this publicity Ovington felt that she had been “smothered in mud.” Reading some threatening letters that had been sent her, she felt complimented to have “endangered one’s life for a cause.” Years later, looking back on this storm of publicity, she observed that ever afterwards “the dining of white and colored together in New York ceased to be news.”

After she left Tuskegee Ovington co-founded, with Dr. Velma Morton Jones, the Lincoln Settlement, a community center in Brooklyn. She was board president of Lincoln Settlement for 12 years and chief fund-raiser for decades. During this period she also helped found, worked for, or raised money for several small organizations serving blacks that would merge to form the Urban League in 1911.

In the wake of the 1908 anti-Negro riots in Springfield, Illinois, Ovington was inspired by a report by William English Walling which ended with the challenging question, “what large and powerful body of citizens is ready to come to [the Negro’s] aid?” She suggested to Walling that a new interracial organization was needed, and they, with a few others, formed a committee that issued a call for a national conference. Among the 60 signers of the Call were both blacks—DuBois, Francis Grimke, and Ida Wells-Barnett—and whites—Jane Addams, William Dean Howells, John Dewey, John Haynes Holmes, Jenkin Lloyd Jones, Harriot Stanton Blatch, Anna Garlin Spencer, and Lincoln Steffens. They were for the most part recruited from Ovington’s various circles of acquaintance. The resulting National Negro Conference, held in New York in 1909, contained a series of anti-racist addresses by distinguished scholars and clergy. The second conference in 1910 transformed itself into the permanent body known as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

As one of the officers and the paid Director of Publicity and Research, DuBois brought the new organization more closely in touch with the Niagara Movement, many of whose prominent members were assimilated along with him. The engagement of DuBois was one of Ovington’s chief goals in helping to found the NAACP. During the first twenty years of the Association she exercised her considerable diplomatic powers to keep him as Director and editor of their periodical, The Crisis, in spite of personality clashes with other executive officers and alienation caused by his increasingly militant pronouncements. Writing to DuBois in 1914 she reminded him that theirs was not just a black audience and that they had to promote blacks and whites working together: “Should we preach race consciousness just as the socialist preaches class consciousness, and should we teach the black man to regard every white man as his enemy except when he repudiates his race? This is a question for each one to answer personally, but unquestionably the Association, through its very organization, has answered it negatively.” Ultimately DuBois’s and Ovington’s paths diverged. When in the 1930s he called for voluntary black segregation, she helped to keep the NAACP focused on the goal of integration.

Ovington served the NAACP from its founding in 1910 until 1947. Always on the Executive Board, she was acting executive secretary, 1910-11; acting chair, 1917-19; chair of the board, 1919-32; and treasurer, 1932-47. In addition she was the Director of Branches. She did some writing, editing, and layout for The Crisis (named after her favorite poem, James Russell Lowell’s “The Present Crisis”). She traveled around the country gathering supporters and starting local branches. She was the chief money-raiser and architect of fund-raising campaigns. She organized conferences and publicity campaigns. She watched over the health of executive secretary James Weldon Johnson and other fellow-workers, often sending overstressed executives away on vacations at her cottage in the Berkshires.

Fellow Unitarian John Haynes Holmes summarized Ovington’s role in the NAACP as follows: “Of the executive directors who led the way, I think of three as preeminent in power and influence. The first was none other than Miss Ovington who, in the early days of our cause, assumed voluntarily in her one person the duties of all the officials we had—director, secretary, treasurer, and publicity agent. With superb devotion and ability, she carried the work to a point where it must have a paid and trained staff if it was really to be the potent force of which we dreamed. Then, with infinite grace, she stepped down that others might follow on.”

Although she was a radical socialist, and a member of the Socialist party, Ovington subordinated her leftist political opinions to the needs of the NAACP and the goal of racial integration. Moreover she criticized the socialist movement for being male-dominated and called for women to unite to destroy “masculine despotism.” At the NAACP she attempted to bring black women into positions of power and influence and worked closely with friends in the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). During the later stages of the campaign for women’s suffrage, as chair of the board of the NAACP, Ovington encouraged the Woman’s Party and other voting-rights organizations to include black women and pressured them not to give in to any compromise that would disenfranchise half of the black voters.

In 1947 failing health led her to withdraw from the NAACP board at the age of 82. Henry Wheeler, writing in the St. Louis American, suggested that the organization declare a “Mary White Ovington Day.” She was, he claimed, the person “who has done more to make America The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave than any other living soul.” In that year Ovington published to wide acclaim The Walls Came Tumbling Down, her autobiographical history of the NAACP. In her final years Ovington moved to Massachusetts to be with her younger sister Helen. After her death a memorial service for her was held at the Unitarian Community Church in New York City, led by Rev. Donald Harrington. Her ashes reside in the chapel there.

The Mary White Ovington Papers are kept in the Archives of Labor History and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University, in Detroit, Michigan. The work of the NAACP has been documented in annual reports and disseminated through their magazine, The Crisis. Their archive is in the Library of Congress. In addition to the books mentioned above Ovington wrote Hazel (1913), a children’s book; How the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Began (1914), a pamphlet; The Shadow (1920), a novel; The Upward Path: A Reader for Colored Children (1920), with Myron Thomas Pritchard; The Awakening (1923), a play; Portraits in Color (1927); Zeke: A Schoolboy at Tolliver (1931), a children’s book; and Phillis Wheatley (1932), a play. Black and White Sat Down Together: The Reminiscences of an NAACP Founder (1995), edited by Ralph E. Luker, was drawn from articles originally published in the Baltimore Afro-American (1932-33). Ovington was a part-time journalist for much of her life, contributing to The New York Evening Post, The Crisis, Colored American, Journal of Negro History, Survey, Outlook, New Republic, Brooklyn Eagle, Woman Citizen, The Masses (which published in 1915 he short story, “The White Brute”), the Christian Register, and many others. She had a syndicated book review column syndicated in many newspapers, 1921-33.

The only published book-length biography of Ovington is Carolyn Wedin, Inheritors of the Spirit: Mary White Ovington and the Founding of the NAACP (1998). There are biographical entries on Ovington by Malaika Horne in W.E.B. DuBois: An Encyclopedia (2001), edited by Gerald Horne and Mary Young, and by Marilyn Elizabeth Perry in American National Biography (1999). Others sources of information on Ovington and the NAACP include John Haynes Holmes, I Speak for Myself (1959); Charles Flint Kellogg, NAACP: A History of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (1967); Proceedings of the National Negro Conference, 1909 (1969); The Correspondence of W.E.B. DuBois, volume 1, Selections 1877-1934 (1973), edited by Herbert Aptheker; and David Levering Lewis, W.E.B. DuBois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919 (1993).

Article by Dorothy Senghas and Catherine Senghas - posted September 17, 2002


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