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How the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Began

How the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Began
Title: How the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Began
Release Date: 2019-01-18
Type book: Text
Copyright Status: Public domain in the USA.
Date added: 27 March 2019
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How the National Association
for the Advancement of
Colored People

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
20 WEST 40th STREET, NEW YORK 18, N.Y.
First Printing 1914


By Mary White Ovington
(As Originally printed in 1914)

THE National Association for theAdvancement of Colored Peopleis five years old—old enough, it is believed,to have a history; and I, whoam perhaps its first member, havebeen chosen as the person to recite it.As its work since 1910 has been setforth in its annual reports, I shallmake it my task to show how it cameinto existence and to tell of its firstmonths of work.

In the summer of 1908, the countrywas shocked by the account of the raceriots at Springfield, Illinois. Here, inthe home of Abraham Lincoln, a mobcontaining many of the town’s “bestcitizens,” raged for two days, killed andwounded scores of Negroes, and drovethousands from the city. Articles onthe subject appeared in newspapers andmagazines. Among them was one in theIndependent of September 3d, by WilliamEnglish Walling, entitled “RaceWar in the North.” After describingthe atrocities committed against thecolored people, Mr. Walling declared:

“Either the spirit of the abolitionists,of Lincoln and of Lovejoy mustbe revived and we must come to treatthe Negro on a plane of absolute politicaland social equality, or Vardamanand Tillman will soon have transferredthe race war to the North.” Andhe ended with these words, “Yet whorealizes the seriousness of the situation,and what large and powerful body ofcitizens is ready to come to their aid?”

It so happened that one of Mr. Walling’sreaders accepted his question andanswered it. For four years I had beenstudying the status of the Negro inNew York. I had investigated his housingconditions, his health, his opportunitiesfor work. I had spent manymonths in the South, and at the timeof Mr. Walling’s article, I was livingin a New York Negro tenement on aNegro street. And my investigations andmy surroundings led me to believe withthe writer of the article that “the spiritof the abolitionists must be revived.”

So I wrote to Mr. Walling, and aftersome time, for he was in the West, wemet in New York in the first week ofthe year 1909. With us was Dr. HenryMoskowitz, now prominent in the administrationof John Purroy Mitchell,Mayor of New York. It was then thatthe National Association for the Advancementof Colored People was born.

It was born in a little room of aNew York apartment. It is to be regrettedthat there are no minutes ofthe first meeting, for they would makeinteresting if unparliamentary reading.Mr. Walling had spent some years inRussia where his wife, working in thecause of the revolutionists, had sufferedimprisonment; and he expressed his beliefthat the Negro was treated withgreater inhumanity in the UnitedStates than the Jew was treated in Russia.As Mr. Walling is a Southerner welistened with conviction. I knew somethingof the Negro’s difficulty in securingdecent employment in the Northand of the insolent treatment awardedhim at Northern hotels and restaurants,and I voiced my protest. Dr. Moskowitz,with his broad knowledge of conditionsamong New York’s helpless immigrants,aided us in properly interpretingour facts. And so we talkedand talked voicing our indignation.

Of course, we wanted to do somethingat once that should move thecountry. It was January. Why notchoose Lincoln’s birthday, February 12,to open our campaign? We decided,therefore, that a wise, immediate actionwould be the issuing on Lincoln’sbirthday of a call for a national conferenceon the Negro question. At thisconference we might discover the beginnings,at least, of that “large andpowerful body of citizens” of which Mr.Walling had written.

And so the meeting adjourned. Somethingdefinite was determined upon, andour next step was to call others intoour councils. We at once turned toMr. Oswald Garrison Villard, presidentof the N.Y. Evening Post Company.He received our suggestions with enthusiasm,and aided us in securing theco-operation of able and representativemen and women. It was he who draftedthe Lincoln’s birthday call and helpedto give it wide publicity. I give theCall in its entirety with the signaturessince it expresses, I think, better thananything else we have published, thespirit of those who are active in theAssociation’s cause.

“The celebration of the Centennialof the birth of Abraham Lincoln, widespreadand grateful as it may be, willfail to justify itself if it takes no noteof and makes no recognition of thecolored men and women for whom thegreat Emancipator labored to assurefreedom. Besides a day of rejoicing,Lincoln’s birthday in 1909 should beone of taking stock of the nation’s progresssince 1865.

“How far has it lived up to the obligationsimposed upon it by the EmancipationProclamation? How far has itgone in assuring to each and every citizen,irrespective of color, the equalityof opportunity and equality before thelaw, which underlie our American institutionsand are guaranteed by theConstitution?

“If Mr. Lincoln could revisit thiscountry in the flesh, he would be disheartenedand discouraged. He wouldlearn that on January 1, 1909, Georgiahad rounded out a new confederacyby disfranchising the Negro, after themanner of all the other Southern States.He would learn that the Supreme Courtof the United States, supposedly a bulwarkof American liberties, had refusedevery opportunity to pass squarely uponthis disfranchisement of millions, bylaws avowedly discriminatory and openlyenforced in such manner that thewhite men may vote and black menbe without a vote in their government;he would discover, therefore, that taxationwithout representation is the lotof millions of wealth-producing Americancitizens, in whose hands rests theeconomic progress and welfare of anentire section of the country.

“He would learn that the SupremeCourt, according to the official statementof one of its own judges in theBerea College case, has laid down theprinciple that if an individual Statechooses, it may ‘make it a crime forwhite and colored persons to frequentthe same market place at the same time,or appear in an assemblage of citizensconvened to consider questions of apublic or political nature in which allcitizens, without regard to race, areequally interested.’

“In many states Lincoln would findjustice enforced, if at all, by judgeselected by one element in a communityto pass upon the liberties and lives ofanother. He would see the black menand women, for whose freedom a hundredthousand of soldiers gave theirlives, set apart in trains, in which theypay first-class fares for third-class service,and segregated in railway stationsand in places of entertainment; hewould observe that State after State declinesto do its elementary duty in preparingthe Negro through educationfor the best exercise of citizenship.

“Added to this, the spread of lawlessattacks upon the Negro, North,South, and West—even in the Springfieldmade famous by Lincoln—oftenaccompanied by revolting brutalities,sparing neither sex nor age nor youth,could but shock the author of the sentimentthat ‘government of the people,by the people, for the people; shouldnot perish from the earth.’

“Silence under these conditionsmeans tacit approval. The indifferenceof the North is already responsible formore than one assault upon democracy,and every such attack reacts asunfavorably upon whites as uponblacks. Discrimination once permittedcannot be bridled; recent history in theSouth shows that in forging chains forthe Negroes the white voters are forgingchains for themselves. ‘A house dividedagainst itself cannot stand’; thisgovernment cannot exist half-slave andhalf-free any better to-day than it couldin 1861.

“Hence we call upon all the believersin democracy to join in a nationalconference for the discussion of presentevils, the voicing of protests, andthe renewal of the struggle for civiland political liberty.”

This call was signed by: Jane Addams,Chicago; Samuel Bowles(Springfield Republican); Prof. W. L.Bulkley, New York; Harriet StantonBlatch, New York; Ida Wells Barnett,Chicago; E. H. Clement, Boston; KateH. Claghorn, New York; Prof. JohnDewey, New York; Dr. W. E. B. DuBois,Atlanta; Mary E. Dreier, Brooklyn;Dr. John L. Elliott, New York;Wm. Lloyd Garrison, Boston; Rev.Francis J. Grimké, Washington, D. C.;William Dean Howells, New York;Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch, Chicago; Rev.John Haynes Holmes, New York; Prof.Thomas C. Hall, New York; HamiltonHolt, New York; Florence Kelley, NewYork; Rev. Frederick Lynch, NewYork; Helen Marot, New York; JohnE. Milholland, New York; Mary E.McDowell, Chicago; Prof. J. G. Merrill,Connecticut; Dr. Henry Moskowitz,New York; Leonora O’Reilly,New York; Mary W. Ovington, NewYork; Rev. Dr. Charles H. Parkhurst,New York; Louis F. Post, Chicago;Rev. Dr. John P. Peters, New York;Dr. Jane Robbins, New York; CharlesEdward Russell, New York; JosephSmith, Boston; Anna Garlin Spencer,New York; William M. Salter, Chicago;J. G. Phelps Stokes, New York;Judge Wendell Stafford, Washington;Helen Stokes, Boston; Lincoln Steffens,Boston; President G. F. Thwing, WesternReserve University; Prof. W. I.Thomas, Chicago; Oswald GarrisonVillard, New York Evening Post; RabbiStephen S. Wise, New York; BishopAlexander Walters, New York; Dr. WilliamH. Ward, New York; HoraceWhite, New York; William EnglishWalling, New York; Lillian D. Wald,New York; Dr. J. Milton Waldron,Washington, D. C.; Mrs. RodmanWharton, Philadelphia; Susan P. Wharton,Philadelphia; President Mary E.Woolley, Mt. Holyoke College; Prof.Charles Zueblin, Boston.

It was thus decided that we shouldhold a conference, and the next twomonths were busily spent arranging forit. Among the men and women whoattended those first committee meetingswere, Bishop Alexander Walters, Mr.Ray Stannard Baker, Mr. AlexanderIrvine, Dr. Owen M. Waller, Mr. GaylordS. White, Miss Madeline Z. Doty,Miss Isabel Eaton, besides many of theNew York signers of the Call. It wasagreed that the conference should beby invitation only, with the one openmeeting at Cooper Union. Over athousand people were invited, the CharityOrganization Hall was secured, and,on the evening of May 30th, the conferenceopened with an informal receptionat the Henry Street Settlement,given by Miss Lillian D. Wald, one ofthe Association’s first and oldest friends.The next morning our deliberationsbegan.

We have had five conferences since1909, but I doubt whether any havebeen so full of a questioning surprise,amounting swiftly to enthusiasm, onthe part of the white people in attendance.These men and women, engagedin religious, social and educationalwork, for the first time met the Negrowho demands, not a pittance, but hisfull rights in the commonwealth. Theyreceived a stimulating shock and onewhich they enjoyed. They did not wantto leave the meeting. We conferred allthe time, formally and informally, andthe Association gained in those daysmany of the earnest and uncompromisingmen and women who have sinceworked unfalteringly in its cause. Mr.William Hayes Ward, senior editor ofthe Independent, opened the conference,and Mr. Charles Edward Russell,always the friend of those whostruggle for opportunity, presided atthe stormy session at the close. The fullproceedings have been published by theAssociation.

Out of this conference we formed acommittee of forty and secured the servicesof Miss Frances Blascoer, as secretary.We were greatly hampered bylack of funds. Important national workwould present itself which we were unableto handle. But our secretary wasan excellent organizer, and at the endof a year we had held four mass meetings,had distributed thousands ofpamphlets, and numbered our membershipin the hundreds. In May, 1910,we held our second conference in NewYork, and again our meetings were attendedby earnest, interested people. Itwas then that we organized a permanentbody to be known as the NationalAssociation for the Advancement ofColored People. Its officers were:

National President, Moorfield Storey,Boston; Chairman of the ExecutiveCommittee, William English Walling;Treasurer, John E. Milholland; DisbursingTreasurer, Oswald GarrisonVillard; Executive Secretary, FrancesBlascoer; Director of Publicity and Research,Dr. W. E. B. DuBois.

The securing of a sufficient financialsupport to warrant our calling Dr. DuBoisfrom Atlanta University into anexecutive office in the Association wasthe most important work of the secondconference.

When Dr. DuBois came to us wewere brought closely in touch with anorganization of colored people, formedin 1905 at Niagara and known as theNiagara Movement. This organizationhad held important conferences at Niagara,Harpers Ferry, and Boston, andhad attempted a work of legal redressalong very much the lines upon whichthe National Association for the Advancementof Colored People was working.Its platform, as presented in astatement in 1905, ran as follows:

Freedom of speech and criticism.

An unfettered and unsubsidizedpress.

Manhood suffrage.

The abolition of all caste distinctionsbased simply on race and color.

The recognition of the principle ofhuman brotherhood as a practical presentcreed.

The recognition of the highest andbest

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