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Mary White Ovington




A resilient pioneer with a passion and vision for equality. She was a suffragette, socialist, Unitarian, Children Rights Activist, Civil Rights leader and journalist,

Mary was born in the days of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln on April 11, 1865, in Brooklyn, New York To Ann L. Ketchum Ovington and Theodore Tweedy Ovington. Mary was the third of four children. Her brother Charles Ketchum was born in 1856, Sister Adele in 1861, and Sister Helen in 1870 The Covington’s were descendants of abolitionists. And   her family was members of the Second Unitarian Church pastured by the Reverend John White Chadwick in Brooklyn Heights, New York. Unitarian Church was supporters of women’s rights and had been involved in the fight against slavery.

Her beliefs in social reform and women’s rights, civil rights were also shaped by Her studies at the attended the Packer Collegiate Institute from 1881 to 1891 and Harvard Annex in Cambridge, Massachusetts, had already convinced her that social issues are attributable to economic class when the depression of 1893 necessitated her withdrawal from school when her parents finances were in trouble. After working as registrar of Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, she became head worker at a Pratt-sponsored settlement house, which she helped found. She became vice president of the Brooklyn chapter of the National Consumers League, whose aims were the elimination of child labour and tenement sweatshops through public education and enlightened state legislation, and she served as assistant secretary of the New York Social Reform Club. Mary 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. She was appointed head of the project the following year. Mary remained there 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, Mary 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).

Mary found herself at the center of controversy in 1908 when she attended a multiracial dinner held at New York’s Cosmopolitan Club. Newspapers across the United States reported on the fact that she had dined among African-American men. The Savannah News in Savannah, Georgia, described her as the “high priestess” of the event who could lead younger white women “astray” in a den of miscegenation.

On September 3, 1908 was her response to Race War in the North, a story by William English Walling on a race riot in Springfield, Illinois, one of the worst the country had ever experienced. Mary took Wailing’s call for a return “to the spirit of the abolitionists” literally. 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 the first 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.

Mary served the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People as board member, executive secretary and chairman After World War 1. 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 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.

Mary Ovington retired as a board member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. In 1932, Mary resigned as chairman of the NAACP’s board of directors and took on the position of its treasurer. She began in September of the same year writing for the Baltimore Afro-American a series of articles called Reminiscences, or Going Back 40 Years. In these, she recounted her development as a political activist and landmark events in the struggle for racial equality. She remained one of the NAACP’s principle policy makers until 1940 and kept her position as treasurer of the organization until 1947. Her autobiography and history of the NAACP, The Walls Came Tumbling Down, was published. In 1947 after 38 years as the Co Founder of the NAACP due to major health problems she relocated to Massachusetts to live with a sister where she passed away in 1951

As a known journalist she wrote several books and articles about the struggles 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

A history of the NAACP, The Walls Come Tumbling Down 1947.


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