Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Mary White Ovington, born April 11, 1865

Mary White Ovington was born April 11, 1865 in Brooklyn, New York a few days before the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.  Her parents, members of the Unitarian Church, were supporters of women's rights and had been involved in the anti-slavery movement.

Mary (or May, as her family called her in childhood) was born into an affluent family, 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 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.  The 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.”

She was born as the Civil War was ending.

Packer Institute
Ovington attended the Packer Institute, a prestigious girls’ school in Brooklyn, 1888-90, then studied at the Harvard Annex (later Radcliffe College), 1891-93. 
Radcliffe College / Harvard Annex
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.

Ovington became involved in the campaign for civil rights in 1890 after hearing Frederick Douglass speak in a Brooklyn church.

Frederick Douglas
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.

Greenpoint Settlement

W.E. B. DuBois 
During her investigations she met W.E. B. DuBois and was introduced to the founding members of the Niagara Movement.  

Founding members of the Niagara Movement  
Based on her 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.”

Following her resignation from the Greenpoint Settlement, Ovington fell victim to typhoid fever, which kept her from working for a year.

Jack London
Influenced by the ideas of  William Morris, Ovington joined the Republican Party in 1905, but was a self-declared Liberal.  She met Asa Philip Randolph, Max Eastman and Jack London, who argued that racial problems were as much a matter of class as of race. 

Asa Philip Randolph
She wrote for radical journals and newspapers such as The Masses and the New York Evening Post. She also worked with Ray Stannard Baker and influenced the content of his book, Following the Color Line, published in 1908.

The Masses
On September 3, 1908 she read an article written by Republican William English Walling, also a Liberal, entitled Race War in the North in The Independent

William English Walling
Walling described a massive race riot directed at black residents in Springfield, Illinois, the hometown of Abraham Lincoln.  

Aftermath of Springfield Riot
The riot 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 Henry Moskowitz.
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).  Ovington was appointed as its executive secretary.  

Jane Addams

Fanny Garrison Villard
Early members included Josephine Ruffin, Mary Church Terrell, Jane Addams, W.E.B. DuBois, John Dewey, Charles Darrow, Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker, Fanny Garrison Villard, Oswald Garrison Villard and Ida B. Wells-Barnett.  

Ida B. Wells-Barnett

Charles Darrow
Ovington remained active in the struggle for women's suffrage.  As a pacifist, she opposed the United States' involvement in the First World War.  

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.

After the war, Ovington served the NAACP 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.  Members of the organization were physically attacked by white racists. 

Ovington retired as a board member of the NAACP in 1947, ending 38 years of service with the organization.  She moved to Massachusetts to live with a sister.

She died  in Newton Highland, Massachusetts on July 15, 1951, at the age of 86.

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