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Mary White Ovington Biography

Racial Justice Activist

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Photograph of Mary White Ovington, reading

Mary White Ovington, about 1910

Courtesy Library of Congress
April 11, 1865 - July 15, 1951

Also see: Mary White Ovington - summary of facts about Mary White Ovington

About Mary White Ovington

Mary White Ovington's parents had been abolitionists; her grandmother had been a friend of William Lloyd Garrison. She also heard about racial justice from the family's minister, Reverend John White Chadwick of the Second Unitarian Church in Brooklyn Heights, New York.

As did a growing number of young women of the time, especially in social reform circles, Mary White Ovington chose education and a career over either marriage or becoming her parents' caretaker. She attended a girls' school and then Radcliffe College. At Radcliffe (then called the Harvard Annex), Ovington was influenced by the ideas of socialist economics professor William J. Ashley.

Settlement House Beginnings

Her family's financial problems forced her withdrawal from Radcliffe College in 1893, and she went to work for the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. She helped the Institute found a settlement house, called Greenpoint Settlement, where she worked for seven years.

Ovington credits a speech she heard at Greenpoint Settlement by Booker T. Washington in 1903 with her subsequent focus on racial equality. In 1904 Ovington undertook an extensive study of the economic situation for African Americans in New York, published in 1911. In this, she pointed to white prejudice as the source of discrimination and segregation, which in turn led to lack of equal opportunity. In a trip to the South, Ovington met W.E.B. Du Bois, and began a long correspondence and friendship with him.

Mary White Ovington then cofounded another settlement house, the Lincoln Settlement in Brooklyn. She supported this center for many years as a fund raiser and board president.

In 1908, a meeting in a restaurant in New York of the Cosmopolitan Club, an interracial group, caused a media storm and vicious criticism of Ovington for hosting a "miscegenation dinner."

Call to Create an Organization

In 1908, after terrible race riots in Springfield, Illinois -- especially shocking to many because this seemed to signal a transfer of "race war" to the North -- Mary White Ovington read an article by William English Walling which asked, "Yet who realizes the seriousness of the situation, and what large and powerful body of citizens is ready to come to their aid?" In a meeting between Walling, Dr. Henry Moskowitz, and Ovington, they decided to issue a call for a meeting on February 12, 1909, on Lincoln's birthday, to address what "large and powerful body of citizens" might be created.

They recruited others to sign a call to the conference; among the sixty signers were W.E.B. Du Bois and other black leaders, but also a number of black and white women, many recruited through Ovington's connections: Ida B. Wells-Barnett, the anti-lynching activist; Jane Addams, settlement house founder; Harriot Stanton Blatch, activist daughter of feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton; Florence Kelley of the National Consumers League; Anna Garlin Spencer, professor in what became Columbia University's school of social work and a pioneer woman minister; and more.

The National Negro Conference met as suggested in 1909, and again in 1910. At this second meeting, the group agreed to form a more permanent organization, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Ovington and Du Bois

Mary White Ovington is generally credited with bringing W.E.B. Du Bois into the NAACP as its director, and Ovington remained a friend and trusted colleague to W.E.B. Du Bois, often helping mediate between him and others. He left the NAACP in the 1930s to advocate separate black organization; Ovington remained within the NAACP and worked to keep it an integrated organization.

Ovington served on the Executive Board of the NAACP from its founding until she retired for health reasons in 1947. She served in a variety of other positions, including as Director of Branches, and, from 1919 to 1932, as chair of the board, and 1932 to 1947, as treasurer. She also wrote and helped publish the Crisis, the NAACP publication that supported racial equality, and also became a key supporter of the Harlem Renaissance.

Beyond the NAACP and Race

Ovington was also active in the National Consumers League and in activities to eliminate child labor. As a supporter of the women's suffrage movement, she worked for inclusion of African American women in the movement's organizations. She was also a member of the Socialist Party.

Retirement and Death

In 1947, Mary White Ovington's ill health led her to retire from activities and move to Massachusetts to live with a sister; she died there in 1951.

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