Mary White Ovington Biography

Women's Rights Activist, Civil Rights Activist, Activist, Journalist, Children's Activist (1865–1951)
Mary White Ovington was a civil rights activist and one of the white reformers who helped found the NAACP.


Mary White Ovington was born on April 11, 1865 in Brooklyn, New York. Reared by abolitionist parents, she had a zeal for social reform. After hearing a 1903 speech by Booker T. Washington, Ovington devoted herself to racial equality. In 1909 Ovington and fellow civil rights reformers established the NAACP and she held a variety of positions in the organization. Ovington died in 1951.

Early Life

Social reformer Mary White Ovington was born on April 11, 1865, in Brooklyn, New York, where she also grew up. Ovington was one of four children raised in a socially and politically progressive household. Many members of her family had been active in the abolitionist and women's rights movements. She and her family attended services at a local Unitarian Church, led by minister John White Chadwick. Chadwick's radical ideals had a strong influence on Ovington.

Ovington first attended the Packer Collegiate Institute and then continued her studies at Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She had leave school in 1893 before completing her degree because the family ran into some financial difficulty. Back in Brooklyn, Ovington soon began her life of social work.

Social and Political Activist

In the mid-1890s, Ovington helped the poor at what became known as the Greenpoint Settlement. She drew inspiration from Jane Addams of Chicago's Hull House, another settlement that provided shelter and services to those in need. In addition to her social work at Greenpoint, Ovington soon took on another challenge. She began studying the lives of African Americans living in New York at the time. Her research would result in the 1911 book Half a Man: The Status of the Negro in New York. Ovington has been quoted as saying, "If we deny full expression to a race, if we restrict its education, stifle its intellectual and aesthetic impulses, we make it impossible to fairly gauge its ability."

While at Greenpoint, Ovington was also active in the Social Reform Club. It was at a club event that she had a chance to listen Booker T. Washington give a speech. Around 1904, Ovington left Greenpoint. She came down with typhoid and subsequently spent a year recuperating from her illness. During this time, Ovington began exchanging letters with famed African American intellectual and activist W.E.B. Du Bois. She became more politically engaged, joining the Socialist Party in 1905.

Co-Founder of NAACP

In addition to her social work, Ovington also had a career as a journalist. She wrote for a number of publications, including the New York Evening Post. Her life, however, was profoundly changed by an article written by another in 1908. William English Walling penned a piece about a racial attack in Springfield, Illinois, on the town's African American residents. This riot left seven people dead and destroyed dozens of homes and businesses. In his article, Walling asked for people to unite in support of African Americans.

Ovington contacted Walling, and she and Dr. Henry Moskowitz met with Walling at his New York home. The trio created plans to hold a special conference, which became known as the National Negro Committee. The first conference was held in New York in 1909. The NNC held another meeting the following year, during which a new organization called the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was formed. Made up of both blacks and whites, the NAACP was a picture of racial harmony in its early days.

As one of the group's founders, Ovington became the NAACP's first executive secretary and a member of its board. Her friend W.E.B. Du Bois served as the organization's director of publicity and research and ran its publication The Crisis. Over the years, Ovington also contributed to The Crisis and provided editorial support to the publication. She served in several different capacities during her nearly four decades with the NAACP, including as chair of the board from 1919 to 1932.

Final Years

In 1947, Ovington was forced to resign from the NAACP due to poor health. That same year, she released her personal look at the organization's history in the work The Walls Came Tumbling Down. In her eighties, Ovington spent her final years with her sister Helen in Massachusetts. She died on July 15, 1951, in Newton Highlands, Massachusetts.

Besides her many contributions to the NAACP, Ovington left behind a substantial body of work, including numerous essays and articles. In addition to Half a Man, she remembered for such books as Socialism and the Feminist Movement (1914) and Portraits in Color, a collection of biographies. Ovington also wrote a few novels and children's books.

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