By Tara Mae
All change involves commitment and creativity; the steadfastness to strive for better and the ability to imagine a brighter future. Mary White Ovington, suffragist, journalist, ally, and co-founder of the NAACP, used her privilege for power. She did not come as a savior, she came to understand and support people and causes.
Born in Brooklyn on April 11, 1865, two days after General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox Courthouse and three days before the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, Ovington was raised in a progressive household. Her parents, members of the Unitarian Church, were supporters of women’s rights and had been abolitionists. She was educated at the Packer Collegiate Institute and Radcliffe College.
The Institute was originally established in 1845 by landowners and merchants who were interested in improving learning opportunities for girls. Radcliffe, one of the Seven Sister schools and counterpart to Harvard University, had a reputation for engaging an astutely intellectual, literary, and independent student-body. At a time when higher education for women was a controversial and contested topic, Ovington enjoyed the privileges of such learning. These relative freedoms were hard-won and not afforded to her or her peers outside the scholastic sphere, however.
The mere existence of Radcliffe was an attempt to circumnavigate sexism; Harvard categorically refused to admit women. Radcliffe developed in response to that discrimination and raised an impressive endowment with the hope that Harvard would be enticed to admit women. Harvard resisted the temptation, and Radcliffe developed its own reputation for academic excellence. During her time at the college, Ovington, who was from an upper middle class family, became increasingly conscious of how economic class created and exacerbated social issues. This lesson was made all the more apparent with the depression of 1893, when her family’s resulting lack of funds necessitated her withdrawal from Radcliffe.
Supportive of the fight for civil rights since seeing Frederick Douglass speak at a Brooklyn church in 1890 while she was still a student at Packer, Ovington embarked on a lifelong journey of informal education. After she left Radcliffe, Ovington started working for the Pratt Institute, where she was initially employed as a registrar. She then had the first professional opportunity to put her beliefs into action. Ovington helped form the Greenpoint Settlement, co-sponsored by Pratt, and was made head of the project the next year. The Greenpoint Settlement offered social and educational outreach to the urban poor.
In 1903, Ovington heard Booker T. Washington speak at the Social Reform Club. She later credited this event with motivating her to comprehensively shift the focus of her work to racial and social injustices faced by Black communities. Ovington was appointed a fellow of the Greenwich House Committee on Social Investigations, and studied the housing and employment struggles of Black Manhattanites.
It was during this time that she met W.E.B. Du Bois and was introduced to the founders of the Niagara Movement, a Black civil rights organization created to oppose racial disenfranchisement and segregation. Inspired by the notions of British activist William Morris, she joined the Socialist Party of America and met individuals, including activist Asa Philip Randolph, who posited that racial problems were an issue of both class and race. What Ovinvgton learned, she shared, writing for the New York Call, The Masses, and the New York Evening Post.
Ovington compiled data for what would become Half a Man: The Status of the Negro in New York, a study of Black Manhattan. Collaborating with journalist and historian Ray Stannard Baker, Ovington influenced the content of his book, Following the Color Line: An Account of Negro Citizenship in the American Democracy, considered to be one of the first published mainstream studies of America’s racial divide.
She was again moved to action after reading an article in The Independent, “Race War in the North.” Its author, William English Walling, described a race riot in Springfield, Illinois, that caused seven deaths, the demolition of 24 businesses and 40 homes, and 107 indictments of rioters. He concluded the article with a call to action: powerful citizens needed to unite in support Black people.
Ovington and fellow social worker Dr. Henry Moskowitz met with Walling at his New York City apartment to discuss how to answer this call and decided that they would organize a national conference on the political and civil rights of Blacks. On February 12, 1909, the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, they announced the formation of the National Negro Committee, which held two annual meetings before disbanding to develop a more permanent and ongoing effort for racial justice.
From this endeavor grew the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Ovington was appointed executive secretary, and worked with friends and
colleagues such as Du Bois, Baker, Moskowitz, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and Mary Church Terrell. She traveled on behalf of the NAACP, attending the First Universal Races Congress in London, an early undertaking for anti-racism. More than 50 countries and 20 governments sent delegates, whose work at the conference was divided into five categories: fundamental considerations; conditions of progress; problems of interracial economics and peaceful contact between civilizations; conscience in relation to racial questions; and, suggestions for promoting interracial relations.
Half a Man was published in 1911. Years of painstaking research traced the history of Black people in the state, from the first enslaved persons of New Amsterdam to Blacks living and working in New York City. Through interviews, data, and observation, she determined that New York City was largely separate but unequal and that the state, like the country, was not as progressive as it projected. One interviewee noted, “I was never wanted in the southern city of my youth...In New York I am tolerated.”
Ovington analyzed the nuances of overt and subtle racism, and its obvious and insidious impact on Black New Yorkers. She addressed the problem of institutionalized racism, woven into services like education and law enforcement, observing
Harshness, for no cause but his black face, has been too frequently bestowed upon the Negro by the police. This has been especially noticeable in conflicts between white and colored, when the white officer, instead of dealing impartially with offenders, protected his own race...And the New York Negro in his turn does not allow his liberties to be tampered with without protest.
In her paper’s conclusion, she surmised that white Americans had too long been the oppressors to easily dismiss their prejudices and identified her hope that one day a Black person would be able to walk through the city unharassed, “a man among men.”
During the remainder of the 1910s, Ovington continued to write while working for the NAACP. She published studies on the status of Black people in America, feminism and women’s rights, as well as an anthology for Black children. An ardent pacifist, she also opposed the United States participation in World War I. For the NAACP, she served as board member and chairwoman. Between 1915 and 1923, with her assistance, the organization appealed to the Supreme Court to identify as unconstitutional many laws passed by southern states.
A suffragist and civil rights worker, Ovington advocated for the voting rights of all women. Passage of the 19th Amendment was delayed in the Senate by Southern Democrats who protested women’s voting rights in general, the inclusion of Black women’s suffrage in particular. This caused some white suffragists, among them, Alice Paul, to propose that Black women be excluded from this legislature, and (maybe) added at a later date. Although the measure actually passed without any significant language being changed, the battle began for it to be ratified by 36 states, a requirement for it to become law.
Fully ratified by August 1920, the National Woman’s Party, of which Paul was the leader and Ovington was an advisory member, planned a celebratory meeting to be held in Washington D.C. in February, 1921. Ovington launched a singularly focused letter writing campaign, petitioning Paul to add a Black woman to the roster of speakers for the upcoming event. She nominated Mary B. Tarrell, the former president of the Federation of Colored Women.
In her many missives to Paul and her associates, Ovington outlined and recounted the obstacles, abuses, and harm faced by Black voters, especially Black women. She argued that any progress made by the women’s suffrage movement would be undermined without the inclusion of Black women, and warned that individuals, who risked their lives for the right to vote and now risked their lives to exercise this right, would be ostracized and offended if they were not accurately recognized and represented.
The 19th amendment theoretically gave Black women the right to vote, but existing discriminatory laws and other racist rules prevented as much as 75% of this population from participating in elections. Ovington was keenly aware of the difficulties and perils encountered by Black women at the polls; she entreated and demanded that their stalwart determination and personal bravery be acknowledged with representation.
May I point out however that Mrs. Talbert does represent the colored women of the United States and that no white woman can today represent the colored women of this country. Owing to our caste system, these women are little known by white women and carry on their organization largely distinct from the organizations of your and my race. This being the case, it is surely eminently proper that a meeting which has as one of its objects the honoring of the great feminists of the nineteenth century should have on its program a representative colored woman.
Ovington’s assertion that no white woman could speak better than a Black woman about the experience of being a Black woman in the United States seems obvious, and yet was still rebuffed: Paul only invited white speakers.
Continuing to advocate for voting and civil rights, Ovington remained fully committed to these causes for the rest of her life. In June, 1934, she embarked on a speaking tour of 14 colleges. Ovington wanted to show audiences that the NAACP consisted of Black and white people; her main objective was to demonstrate to Black youth that there were white people who hated racism. A well-published author, Ovington wrote an anthology of biographical sketches of prominent Black individuals, an autobiography, and a history of the NAACP. Forced to retire due to ill health in 1947, she died in 1951 at the age of 86. Her dedication and legacy are inspirations to anyone who seeks the courage of their convictions in the continuous quest for social justice.