NAACP History: Mary White Ovington

Mary White Ovington (April 11, 1865 in Brooklyn, New York - July 15, 1951) a suffragette, socialist, unitarian, journalist, and co-founder of the NAACP.

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 William Du Bois, an African American from Harvard University, and she was introduced to the founding members of the Niagara Movement.

Influenced by the ideas of William Morris, Ovington joined the Socialist Party in 1905, where she met people such as Daniel De Leon, Asa 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 Call. She also worked with Ray Stannard Baker and influenced the content of his book, Following the Color Line (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, 40 homes and 24 businesses destroyed, and 107 indictments against rioters. Walling ended the article by calling for a powerful body of citizens to come to the aid 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 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, William Du Bois, Charles Edward Russell, John Dewey, Charles Darrow, Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker, Fanny Garrison Villard, Oswald Garrison Villard and Ida Wells-Barnett.

The following year she 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 Asa Philip Randolph and his magazine, The Messenger, which campaigned for black civil rights.

After the war Ovington served the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People as board member, executive secretary and chairman. The 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.

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.

She 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 Come Tumbling Down (1947).

Ovington retired as a board member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1947 and in doing so, ended decades of service with the organization. She died in 1951.