WHITE OVINGTON: FOUNDER OF THE NAACP 1865-1951
courtesy of Walter P. Reuther Library,
Wayne State University
By Carolyn Wedin
Professor of English, Emeritus, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater
It is hard
to overestimate the influence of Unitarianism on Mary
White Ovington, who was born at the time of the assassination
of President Lincoln and at the end of the Civil War;
and died long after World War II in 1951. It is doubly
difficult to overestimate the influence of Mary White
Ovington on Unitarianism. Her childhood Brooklyn church,
the Second Unitarian, had been in the forefront in the
Abolitionist battle against American slavery. But all
that was forgotten, the work assumed done, by the time
Ovington began to question the roles of women, of Blacks,
of good people in the racially hostile atmosphere
of the turn of the 19th century.
Since I can say what I think here, I will tell you after
so very many years of living with this remarkable
woman through researching and writing her biography (Inheritors
of the Spirit: Mary White Ovington and the Founding of
the NAACP), I believe that not only was Mary White
Ovington THE founder of the NAACP in 1909, but that she
almost single-handedly pulled in and kept together the
radicals, the socialists, the journalists, the writers,
the newspaper owners, the Blacks and the Whites, the Jews
and Unitarians into the 20th century cause of justice,
freedom, and sanctuary from lynching of Black Americans.
You dont have to take my word; you shouldnt.
You should go to her own story, and the story of this
cause, told so readably in her 1947 book, The Walls
Came Tumbling Down. And now, too, you have access
to her serial autobiographical narrative first published
in the Baltimore Afro-American in 1932-33, in a
1995 republication by the Feminist Press, called
Black and White Sat Down Together: The Reminiscences
of an NAACP Founder.
White Ovington, 1893, at age twenty-eight. (Photo
courtesy of Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State
Ovingtons early Unitarian training to think and
question, question and think, emerged strongly in her
late published and unpublished writing as it did throughout
her life. To Roy Wilkins at the NAACP she wrote on July
22,1942 as the organization dealt with the topic of segregation,
now promoted by W. E. B. Du Bois: I who have found
that I am a dialectic materialist, believing in no absolute
truths and that mans progress, when he makes any,
is not the result of slogans but of work, still wonder
whether each issue that comes should not be carefully
studied and decided not on the merits of publicity, but,
shall we say, on the merits of the greatest good to the
Immediately recognizing the power of Native Son
when it surprised and shocked the literary world in 1940,
she wrote to Richard Wright: Ive watched Negro
literature now for forty years, collected it, reviewed
it, even written a little of it [she could add that she
corresponded extensively with many Black authors]. Much
of it has seemed unreal. . . . But youve gone down
so deep, your book is rooted into life.
Haynes Holmes of Community Church, Ovington
carried on lively written debates which help us imagine
what it must have been like to listen to these two people
together. She wondered at his casting the tie vote to
expel communist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn from the American
Civil Liberties Board; she appreciated his talk on John
Steinbecks Grapes of Wrath ; and said of
the controversial ending of the book: There was
a group of human beings, bereft of everything, and one
of them gives food from her very self to succor someone
hungrier than she. The miracle of man! The heroism of
it! Shut up in that barn man became invincible.
flown from NAACP headquarters at 69 Fifth Avenue in
New York City during the anti-lynching campaign. (Library
their work with the NAACP and moved toward larger concerns:
I know that there has been real progress in bettering
the relations between white and colored people and that
the NAACP has helped to bring this about. But the persecution
of the Jews makes me fear that we have built upon sand.
Except in the labor movement, each group is working solely
for its own advantage, and the stronger can use race prejudice
without remorse if real competition appears. . . . Wars,
conflicts, cruelty have always been. But increasingly
more and more men and women are brought into a fuller
life than they knew before. The middle class marched on
through the Reformation. The workers, in the factories
and in the fields, are waking to the fact that it is for
them to march on now.
The workers were indeed the hope of the future for Ovington:
In my long experience I find that the intellectual
is only of value to the working class in exposing conditions.
After that he is more apt to set back a movement than
to promote it. Like the abolitionist who exposed slavery
and then opposed the compromise measures that in the end
brought about its abolition: the free soil, the republican
party, and Lincoln. . . . But I shouldnt attempt
to argue about this to you for you still believe in your
class and mine whereas I believe that we have failed.
Two great wars in 28 years hardly shows intelligence.
I am not with you that the Unitarians of whom you spoke
at the Alliance once, are of any world importance.
staff in the 1920's: William Pickens, field agent;
unknown; James Weldon Johnson, executive secretary;
Walter White, assistant secretary; and unknown. (Photo
courtesy of Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State
When she wrote to Holmes in April of 1942 that they would
have to have a good talk about New Moral Issues, she quickly
went on to say, I should first have to define Moral
Issues and that would probably take all their time right
But she used
the letter to give her own definition: I dont
believe that there are any fixed moral issuesno
eternal verities. Man is an animal with very finite limitationsphysical
and intellectual. What is important to him one centurymoral
to the extent of burning his fellowmen for differing with
himbecomes utterly unimportant in the next century.
Much that seems true today will not seem true tomorrow.
Life is a matter of values.
Mary White Ovingtons completion of the manuscript
for The Walls Came Tumbling Down is in itself a
great, inspiring story of aging and dedication. Over several
years of first great enthusiasm, then through strokes,
loss of eyesight, hospitalization, and shock treatments,
she struggled on.
Finally she had it ready to send to readers, including
first and foremost, John Haynes Holmes. He was delighted
with it: What surprised and excited me was the fact
that what you have written is far more than a mere history
of the NAACP. It is an autobiography in the true sense
of the word and a fascinating one. . . . The whole thing
has a fine literary quality, and a frankness of confession
. . . which is wholly consistent with modesty and with
restrained feeling. But all through what you have written,
there is the passion of your conviction and high idealism,
and this gives the book an absorbing quality which is
When the dark
blue book finally emerged from its writing and publishing
maze, Holmes was second only to Oswald Garrison Villard
on her list of Key People to Whom to Send a Copy of The
Walls. Walls, Ovington said, was my last
gift, a salute to the friends I have made all over the
continent during the past thirty-eight years.
the publishing hubbub had died down, she dictated: Since
finishing The Walls Came Tumbling Down, I have
had a sort of let-down physically, and I am entering upon
a queer existence. . . . All the old energy is gone and
I can hardly remember it.
colleagues W.E.B. Du Bois, Lillian Alexander, Mary
White Ovington, Amy Spingarn (Mrs. J. E. Spingarn),
and unknown. Snapshot from Lillian Alexander, probably
from early 1930's. (Photo courtesy of Walter P. Reuther
Library, Wayne State University )
At some point
in these last years of her life, Ovington did some of
what Holmes suggested, that she not stop with Walls
but that she go on to tell about her later days, especially
your interest in Russia and your reaction to this great
revolutionary upheaval of our time.
In her papers in the Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs
at Wayne State University in Detroit, are page upon page
of her carefully thought-through and original Plans
for Peace based on economics. How interesting
history would be if instead of tracing power through nations
we traced power through production and distribution.
I fear the world that goes on: the few holding the
flowers of the earth, gripping them with their hot hands,
while the little children. . . grope among the nettles
for food. . . . The new man is not growing in America.
But the bombs are growing.
Some of Mary White Ovingtons last, shaky, handwritten
letters were to Holmes, her friend and minister, who faithfully
visited her and wrote her in the hospital (The Institute
for Living in Hartford). In 1948 she regretted not being
with him for a Community Church dedication and concluded.
These are difficult days but there is always hope.
Yours, Lovingly, Mary W. Ovington.
Sources: Papers of Mary White Ovington,
Wayne State University, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs Papers of John Haynes Holmes, Library of Congress Papers of Oswald Garrison Villard, Harvard University
Where I Began
by Mary White Ovington
annual conference, NAACP (Library of Congress)
came from a family of teachers and spent a happy childhood
attending private schools, and upon my graduation, I spent
two years at Radcliffe College. After three years of going
into society, I set out to make my living. I had
learned little of the Negro population, other than that
slavery had been ended, the Negro was free and a citizen,
these two facts cast everything else into the shade.
I began my work at the Greenpoint Settlement as a social
worker following the philosophy of Jane Addams (who was
a big influence in my life and work) and the settlement
movement, after having learned of the conditions of the
white working class in my own neighborhood, of which I
was utterly ignorant." During my time at the
Greenpoint Settlement, I also joined the Social Reform
Club, an organization comprising of a membership
of intellectuals and workers." The Social Reform
Club believed in political reform, and talked of socialism
(I did not, however, officially join the Socialist party
until two years after leaving the Greenpoint Settlement).
That I should later work for the Negro never entered my
mind, but I doubt if I could have better preparation than
the settlement gave. For in those years I learned that
many problems attributed to race are really labor problems.
It was during my time at Greenpoint that I had direct
contact with the Negro life and that led me to take up
The Social Reform Club, to which I belonged, wanted to
honor the author of Up From Slavery, Booker T.
Washington and his wife, and I was made chairman of the
committee to arrange for the dinner, with the instructions:
Do not have all the talk about conditions of the
South. Have conditions of the North discussed. Upon
following these instructions, I learned of the condition
of the Negro problem in my own city! I accepted the Negro
as I accepted any other element in the population. That
he suffered more from poverty, from segregation, from
prejudice, than any other race in the city was new to
me. I was inspired after that night, and went home with
a new idea, might my next venture be among Negroes?"
I left Greenpoint a year later and spent the following
year recovering from typhoid.
The desire to have a settlement among Negroes had been
mulling around in my mind for these months. I felt a settlement
in a Negro section would not only help the poor but would
be an excellent meeting place for the well-to-do of each
race. With this idea in mind, but with no knowledge of
the condition of the Negro, I was advised by a friend,
Mary Kingsbury Simkhovich, head of Greenwich House to
study the condition of Negroes in New York City. Mary
helped me to secure a fellowship from Greenwich House,
which resulted in the publication of my first book, Half
a Man: The Status of the Negro in New York.
Photos are by courtesy of Walter P. Reuther Library,
Wayne State University