Many extraordinary women have called Greenpoint home. One such example is a suffragette who helped create the NAACP, had a Brooklyn school named after her and got her face on a postage stamp.
This exemplary leader was Mary White Ovington, who was born in Brooklyn in 1865 into a family that supported women rights and the abolition of slavery.
Ovington did not partake in the traditional path of starting a family, but instead opted for education. According to the website ThoughtCo., Ovington attended Radcliffe College, but had to drop out for financial reasons, and went to work for the Pratt Institute. She helped the Institute develop a settlement house, which was privately funded and meant to provide shelter and other services for underprivileged people in urban areas. The Greenpoint Settlement was located in one of the neighborhood’s most historic buildings, the Astral (184 Franklin St.), which is a New York City Landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Ovington describes the origins of the Greenpoint Settlement in her book, “Black and White Sat Down Together: The Reminiscences of an NAACP Founder.” Ovington recounted Frederick Pratt of the Pratt Institute asking her to look at a tenement house he built. “The Astral, as it was called, was one of the first model tenements erected in Greater New York. It was in Greenpoint, the northernmost ward of Brooklyn,” she wrote.
In her book, Ovington goes on to explain that a resident of the Astral, who worked at the Pratt library, told Ovington about the dire conditions that poor people experienced in the city. Ovington was shocked to learn about this and said she was “humiliated” by her ignorance, deciding then to take a job working at the settlement house.
After working at the settlement house in Greenpoint and another in Brooklyn, Ovington shifted her focus to civil rights. The NAACP website tells the story of this exceptional woman who helped shape the organization we know today.
The site reads: “Ovington threw herself fully into the cause of civil rights for Black Americans after reading an article in 1908 that described a race riot that led to seven deaths and mass destruction in Abraham Lincoln’s hometown of Springfield, Illinois. The author, William English Walling, ended the article with a rallying cry to come to the aid of the embattled Black community.”
The NAACP website goes on to explain that Ovington met with Walling to discuss justice and civil rights. In 1909, the NAACP held its first meeting and in 1910, established a board of directors, appointing Ovington as NAACP’s executive secretary.
In addition to being a leader in the activist community, Ovington helped the cause through her writing. The NAACP website also mentions the array of books Ovington penned, including “several books about Black society and culture” like the influential title Half a Man in 1911.
After World War I, Ovington worked at the NAACP as a board member, executive secretary, and chairman, and retired in 1947 after thirty-eight years with the organization, due to her declining health. Ovington died at the age of eighty-six by her sister’s side in Massachusetts.