Ovington, Mary White (1865–1951)

views updated

Ovington, Mary White (1865–1951)

American civil-rights reformer who was a founder of the NAACP. Born Mary White Ovington on April 11, 1865, in Brooklyn, New York; died on July 15, 1951,in Newton Highlands, Massachusetts; daughter of Theodore Tweedy Ovington (a china and glass importer) and Ann Louise (Ketcham) Ovington; attended Packer Collegiate Institute, 1888–91; attended Radcliffe College, 1891–93.

Worked as registrar of Pratt Institute in Brooklyn; was head worker at Greenpoint Settlement (1895–1903); served as vice-president of the Brooklyn Consumers' League; was assistant secretary of the Social Reform Club; joined the Socialist Party of America (c. 1905); was a social worker at Greenwich House; helped to found the National Negro Committee, later to become the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (c. 1909); published Half a Man: The Status of the Negro in New York (1911); served as chair of the board of the NAACP (1919–32).

Mary White Ovington was a white feminist and civil-rights activist who was one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Born the third of four children in Brooklyn, New York, in 1865, Ovington received an abolitionist, Unitarian upbringing from parents who erroneously taught her that the Reconstructionist amendments following the Civil War had ended the problem of racial discrimination in America. During Ovington's youth, the Reverend John White Chadwick of the Second Unitarian Church in Brooklyn Heights educated her about social reform and women's rights. At Radcliffe College from 1891 to 1893, economic historian William J. Ashley taught Ovington to see the connection between economic class and social problems.

After the depression of 1893 forced her to drop out of college, Ovington embarked on a career of social work in various New York housing projects. There she came to believe that African-Americans' economic class caused as many problems as the treatment they received because of their race. During this time, she worked for the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and then at Greenpoint Settlement, a Pratt housing project that Ovington helped to found. She also served as vice-president of the Brooklyn Consumers' League and assistant secretary of the Social Reform Club, where a speech by Booker T. Washington in 1903 made Ovington aware of the problem of racial discrimination in the North. Ovington joined the Socialist Party of America around 1905 and dedicated the remainder of her life's work to fighting for racial equality.

In 1904, Ovington began research for Half a Man: The Status of the Negro in New York, about the housing and employment problems of African-Americans in Manhattan, which would be published in 1911. During her research, she met and began to correspond with W.E.B. Du Bois, the African-American social critic and educator. In the following years, Ovington worked primarily with the National League for the Protection of Colored People and the Committee for Improving the Industrial Condition of Negroes in New York (both forerunners of the National Urban League).

Following a race riot in Springfield, Illinois, in August 1908, Ovington and others, including Du Bois and Ida Wells-Barnett , formed the National Negro Committee in 1909, which several years later would become the NAACP. Their goal was to end racial discrimination and segregation and to fight for civil and legal rights. Their activist stance conflicted with Booker T. Washington's support of more gradual reform, and challenged his leadership of the African-American community. For 40 years, Ovington served the NAACP in many important positions, including chair of the board (1919–32) and treasurer (1932–47). Whatever her title, Ovington was an active policymaker, fund raiser, and lobbyist. She also had a flair for personal relations, which she used early in the NAACP's history to mediate disputes between Du Bois, the publicity director and only African-American in the NAACP's national leadership, and Oswald Garrison Villard, chair of the board.

One of Ovington's most important contributions came in 1923 when, as chair of the board, she convinced the NAACP to direct its energies away from anti-lynching legislation (which efforts were being resolutely ignored by Congress) in favor of attaining equal federal aid for black and white public-school systems. The NAACP's efforts in this regard over the next decade were a precursor to the public school desegregation movement that began in the late 1940s. When Du Bois supported "voluntary segregation" in 1934, Ovington maintained the NAACP's goal of integration.

Over the years Ovington wrote a number of books and articles, including a profile of black leaders, Portraits in Color (1927). Her autobiography, The Walls Came Tumbling Down, which includes much of the history of the NAACP, was published in 1947, the year of her retirement from the organization. Ovington suffered from hypertension and depression in her later years, and died in July 1951 in a nursing home in Newton Highlands, Massachusetts.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

Ovington, Mary White. Black and White Sat Down Together: The Reminiscences of an NAACP Founder. Edited by Ralph E. Luker. Feminist Press, 1995.

Wedin, Carolyn. Inheritors of the Spirit: Mary White Ovington and the Founding of the NAACP. NY: Wiley, 1997.

Women's Review of Books. June 1995.

Daniel E. Brannen , Jr., freelance writer, York, Pennsylvania