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Mary White Ovington (1865 – 1951): Settlement House Founder and Co-Founder of
the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)
Mary White Ovington was born April 11, 1865 in Brooklyn, New York. Her Grandmother attended the Connecticut congregation of Samuel Joseph May also known as Harvard. 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 Republican Party in 1905, but was a self declared Liberal as many Republicans were at that time, where she met people including 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 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 Republican William English Walling, also a Liberal, 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 firstmeeting 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 Asa Philip Randolph and his magazine, The Messenger (later the Black Worker), which campaigned for black civil rights.
After the war, Ovington served the NAACP as board member, executive secretary and chairman. Ovington was a woman who founded and joined the NAACP. She got folks to join her as well. Many believed that the NAACP was joined by African Americans and that is false. Ovington was not an African American, she was white. She was a white woman who had the fortitude and the tenacity to come forth and do this.That is what made her significant to the NAACP. Ovington had the attitude and fortitude to do something like this. This is how the NAACP started. She wanted to work together a bring a multicultural group that consists of only women. Ovington was determined and had the courage to do so. Not many other women can say this. She inspired other women to be brave and if you think something is right go ahead and do so. You never know what you contribute can do. It can have a huge impact on the world. 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 criticized 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 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.
Mary White Ovington 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.
Books By Mary White Ovington
Half a Man. The Status of the Negro in New York (foreword by Franz Boas), 1911. Various reprints.
Status of the Negro in the United States, 1913.
Socialism and the Feminist Movement, 1914
The Upward Path (an anthology), 1919
The Shadow, 1920.
The Awakening (a play), 1923
Portraits in Color, 1927.
“Reminiscences, or Going Back 40 Years,” published in the Baltimore Afro-American, from September 17, 1932 to February 25, 1933.
The Walls Came Tumbling Down, 1947.
Black and White Sat Down Together, 1995.
This work may also be read through the Internet Archive.
How to Cite this Article (APA Format): “Mary White Ovington” (2014). Mary White Ovington (1865-1951): Settlement house founder and co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from http://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/eras/civil-war-reconstruction/ovington-mary-white/