Mary Ovington White, Greenpoint and the founding of the NAACP

hi friends,

My plan this month was to edit the book on Greenpoint history I have written called ” Memorable Greenpointers. ” I had decided

that there was no more point in digging and simply all that was left was to publish. However, What I have found as I have

researched this project is that each time when I think I have come to the end, I learn something new. that makes me stop and re-write I just discovered this fascinating part of Greenpoint History thanks to my friend Rory Callahan. A woman who lived in Greenpoint helped found the NAACP.

Mary Ovington White was born into an Abolitionist family in the year the Civil War ended. She grew up in Brooklyn Heights and pursued an education and did not get married. She went to Packer Collegiate and then went onto Radcliffe before coming home. At Radcliffe (then called the Harvard Annex), Ovington was influenced by the ideas of socialist economics professor William J. Ashley.

She was deeply influenced by the ideas of Jane Adams and her Chicago Hull House experience. At some point she must have met Charles Pratt who built the Astral Building with a settlement House inside. The idea of a settlement House was to help the urban poor learn skills and better adapt to city life.

In 1893, Ovington accepted a position as registrar for the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and in 1895 she cofounded the Institute’s Greenpoint Settlement. During her tenure as the head social worker for the Greenpoint Settlement, she toured slum areas in London and further resolved to correct such living conditions in the United States.
She left the Greenpoint Settlement in 1903 when she was awarded a fellowship for social work at Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch’s Greenwich House in Manhattan. While at the Greenpoint she heard Booker T. Washington speak and eventually became one of Washington’s political supporters.

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.

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.”

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 betweenWalling, 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 lso a number of black and white women, many recruited through Ovington’s connections: Ida B. Wells-Barnett, the anti-lynching advocate,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.

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.

I think it is pretty amazing that a woman who lived in the Astral had such an important role in African-American history.

Geoff

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