Sometimes an unexpected event is a turning point in a person’s life. The story of Mary White Ovington’s trip to Prospect Park was just such a turning point. Ovington was born in 1865, just at the end of the Civil War in Brooklyn Heights. Her defining characteristic was idealism, which she inherited from her parents, who had been upper class Brooklyn abolitionists and taught Mary to fight for social justice. Ovington attended Packer Collegiate Institute, and then went on to Radcliffe, where she was greatly influenced by the ideas of professor William J. Ashley who convinced her to dedicate her life to helping the underprivileged.
Ovington worked for social justice, instead of marrying and raising a family. Ironically, despite the fact that her parents were abolitionists, initially, her work did not focus on African-Americans. Deeply influenced by the ideas of Jane Addams and her charitable Chicago Hull House settlement house, which sought to help the millions of uneducated immigrants, living in dirty, overcrowded tenements, White dedicated herself to aiding poor immigrants. She soon met the millionaire oil refiner Charles Pratt, who built the Astral Building on Franklin Street as affordable model housing for our area’s poor. A vital part of this building was the settlement house, which taught local immigrants important urban survival skills. Ovington impressed Pratt greatly, and he chose her as co-founder of his Greenpoint Settlement House. For four years she taught the immigrant poor of Greenpoint the skills they needed to succeed in New York.
One summer day, however, she was taking 15 newly arrived immigrant boys on a trip to Prospect Park. As the boys drove by houses in a black section, as if on some hidden signal, they all began calling out racial slurs upon seeing some young black women. The black women remained oblivious to the taunts, as if this were a normal occurrence; but Ovington, appalled, loudly berated the boys. She was both troubled and puzzled by what the boy’s taunts revealed about racism in New York.
The incident triggered something inside her, and she began to wonder about the depth of racism in New York City. The same year as this incident, she heard Booker T. Washington lecture on African Americans oppression in the South, but now she saw that such racism existed here too. She started to read widely on black urban conditions and racial inequality.
Ovington also came to know the great African-American writer and leader W.E.B. Du Bois. She and Du Bois rapidly developed a close friendship, maintained by letters and visits and a shared sense of purpose. Du Bois’s chief biographer, describes Ovington as coming “about as close as any white person ever would to being a confidante and advisor” to Du Bois.
On September 3, 1908, she read an article written by William English Walling titled “Race War in the North,” describing a massive race riot targeting blacks in Abraham Lincoln’s hometown w, Springfield, Illinois. The riots led to seven deaths with 40 homes and 24 businesses destroyed. Walling called for a powerful body of citizens to come to the aid of blacks. Ovington, shocked, responded to the article by writing Walling and meeting with him.
Ovington created controversy in 1908 when she and Walling attended a multi-racial dinner held at New York’s Cosmopolitan Club. Newspapers across America luridly reported that she had dined among African-American men. The Savannah News described her as the “high priestess” of an event that could lead white women “astray” into miscegenation. Undaunted, White and other progressive racial thinkers issued a call for a national conference on the rights of African Americans, to be held on the centennial of Lincoln’s birthday, February 12, 1909. This soon led to the creation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), with Ovington appointed executive secretary.
Du Bois was not initially enthusiastic about the NAACP, and White is generally credited with bringing him into the new organization as its director. Ovington remained a lifelong friend and trusted colleague to W.E.B. Du Bois. She was also instrumental in allowing women to play a prominent role in the organization. After World War I, Ovington served the NAACP as board member, executive secretary, and chairman. The NAACP fought many battles against segregation and racial discrimination in housing, education, employment, voting and transportation. They asked the Supreme Court to declare several laws in southern states as unconstitutional, and won three important judgments.
Perhaps her greatest contribution, though, was as a writer. She not only wrote the hugely influential Half a Man, but also The Status of the Negro in the United States (1913), Socialism and the Feminist Movement (1914), an anthology for black children titled The Upward Path (1919), and a history of the NAACP, The Walls Come Tumbling Down (1947). She died in 1951, and today the organization she helped found more than a century ago is still a powerful voice for racial justice in the United States.