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Title: How the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Began
Author: Ovington, Mary White
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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                      How the National Association
                         for the Advancement of
                             Colored People

                          MARY WHITE OVINGTON

                 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 the Advancement of Colored People is five
years old—old enough, it is believed, to have a history; and I, who am
perhaps its first member, have been chosen as the person to recite it.
As its work since 1910 has been set forth in its annual reports, I shall
make it my task to show how it came into existence and to tell of its
first months of work.

In the summer of 1908, the country was shocked by the account of the
race riots at Springfield, Illinois. Here, in the home of Abraham
Lincoln, a mob containing many of the town’s “best citizens,” raged for
two days, killed and wounded scores of Negroes, and drove thousands from
the city. Articles on the subject appeared in newspapers and magazines.
Among them was one in the _Independent_ of September 3d, by William
English Walling, entitled “Race War in the North.” After describing the
atrocities committed against the colored people, Mr. Walling declared:

“Either the spirit of the abolitionists, of Lincoln and of Lovejoy must
be revived and we must come to treat the Negro on a plane of absolute
political and social equality, or Vardaman and Tillman will soon have
transferred the race war to the North.” And he ended with these words,
“Yet who realizes the seriousness of the situation, and what large and
powerful body of citizens is ready to come to their aid?”

It so happened that one of Mr. Walling’s readers accepted his question
and answered it. For four years I had been studying the status of the
Negro in New York. I had investigated his housing conditions, his
health, his opportunities for work. I had spent many months in the
South, and at the time of Mr. Walling’s article, I was living in a New
York Negro tenement on a Negro street. And my investigations and my
surroundings led me to believe with the writer of the article that “the
spirit of the abolitionists must be revived.”

So I wrote to Mr. Walling, and after some time, for he was in the West,
we met in New York in the first week of the year 1909. With us was Dr.
Henry Moskowitz, now prominent in the administration of John Purroy
Mitchell, Mayor of New York. It was then that the National Association
for the Advancement of Colored People was born.

It was born in a little room of a New York apartment. It is to be
regretted that there are no minutes of the first meeting, for they would
make interesting if unparliamentary reading. Mr. Walling had spent some
years in Russia where his wife, working in the cause of the
revolutionists, had suffered imprisonment; and he expressed his belief
that the Negro was treated with greater inhumanity in the United States
than the Jew was treated in Russia. As Mr. Walling is a Southerner we
listened with conviction. I knew something of the Negro’s difficulty in
securing decent employment in the North and of the insolent treatment
awarded him at Northern hotels and restaurants, and I voiced my protest.
Dr. Moskowitz, with his broad knowledge of conditions among New York’s
helpless immigrants, aided us in properly interpreting our facts. And so
we talked and talked voicing our indignation.

Of course, we wanted to do something at once that should move the
country. It was January. Why not choose Lincoln’s birthday, February 12,
to open our campaign? We decided, therefore, that a wise, immediate
action would be the issuing on Lincoln’s birthday of a call for a
national conference on the Negro question. At this conference we might
discover the beginnings, at least, of that “large and powerful body of
citizens” of which Mr. Walling had written.

And so the meeting adjourned. Something definite was determined upon,
and our next step was to call others into our councils. We at once
turned to Mr. Oswald Garrison Villard, president of the N.Y. Evening
Post Company. He received our suggestions with enthusiasm, and aided us
in securing the co-operation of able and representative men and women.
It was he who drafted the Lincoln’s birthday call and helped to give it
wide publicity. I give the Call in its entirety with the signatures
since it expresses, I think, better than anything else we have
published, the spirit of those who are active in the Association’s

“The celebration of the Centennial of the birth of Abraham Lincoln,
widespread and grateful as it may be, will fail to justify itself if it
takes no note of and makes no recognition of the colored men and women
for whom the great Emancipator labored to assure freedom. Besides a day
of rejoicing, Lincoln’s birthday in 1909 should be one of taking stock
of the nation’s progress since 1865.

“How far has it lived up to the obligations imposed upon it by the
Emancipation Proclamation? How far has it gone in assuring to each and
every citizen, irrespective of color, the equality of opportunity and
equality before the law, which underlie our American institutions and
are guaranteed by the Constitution?

“If Mr. Lincoln could revisit this country in the flesh, he would be
disheartened and discouraged. He would learn that on January 1, 1909,
Georgia had rounded out a new confederacy by disfranchising the Negro,
after the manner of all the other Southern States. He would learn that
the Supreme Court of the United States, supposedly a bulwark of American
liberties, had refused every opportunity to pass squarely upon this
disfranchisement of millions, by laws avowedly discriminatory and openly
enforced in such manner that the white men may vote and black men be
without a vote in their government; he would discover, therefore, that
taxation without representation is the lot of millions of
wealth-producing American citizens, in whose hands rests the economic
progress and welfare of an entire section of the country.

“He would learn that the Supreme Court, according to the official
statement of one of its own judges in the Berea College case, has laid
down the principle that if an individual State chooses, it may ‘make it
a crime for white and colored persons to frequent the same market place
at the same time, or appear in an assemblage of citizens convened to
consider questions of a public or political nature in which all
citizens, without regard to race, are equally interested.’

“In many states Lincoln would find justice enforced, if at all, by
judges elected by one element in a community to pass upon the liberties
and lives of another. He would see the black men and women, for whose
freedom a hundred thousand of soldiers gave their lives, set apart in
trains, in which they pay first-class fares for third-class service, and
segregated in railway stations and in places of entertainment; he would
observe that State after State declines to do its elementary duty in
preparing the Negro through education for the best exercise of

“Added to this, the spread of lawless attacks upon the Negro, North,
South, and West—even in the Springfield made famous by Lincoln—often
accompanied by revolting brutalities, sparing neither sex nor age nor
youth, could but shock the author of the sentiment that ‘government of
the people, by the people, for the people; should not perish from the

“Silence under these conditions means tacit approval. The indifference
of the North is already responsible for more than one assault upon
democracy, and every such attack reacts as unfavorably upon whites as
upon blacks. Discrimination once permitted cannot be bridled; recent
history in the South shows that in forging chains for the Negroes the
white voters are forging chains for themselves. ‘A house divided against
itself cannot stand’; this government cannot exist half-slave and
half-free any better to-day than it could in 1861.

“Hence we call upon all the believers in democracy to join in a national
conference for the discussion of present evils, the voicing of protests,
and the renewal of the struggle for civil and political liberty.”

This call was signed by: Jane Addams, Chicago; Samuel Bowles
(Springfield _Republican_); Prof. W. L. Bulkley, New York; Harriet
Stanton Blatch, New York; Ida Wells Barnett, Chicago; E. H. Clement,
Boston; Kate H. Claghorn, New York; Prof. John Dewey, 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; Hamilton Holt, New York; Florence Kelley, New York; Rev. Frederick
Lynch, New York; Helen Marot, New York; John E. 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, New
York; Rev. Dr. Charles H. Parkhurst, New York; Louis F. Post, Chicago;
Rev. Dr. John P. Peters, New York; Dr. Jane Robbins, New York; Charles
Edward Russell, New York; Joseph Smith, 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, Western Reserve University; Prof. W. I.
Thomas, Chicago; Oswald Garrison Villard, New York _Evening Post_; Rabbi
Stephen S. Wise, New York; Bishop Alexander Walters, New York; Dr.
William H. Ward, New York; Horace White, New York; William English
Walling, New York; Lillian D. Wald, New York; Dr. J. Milton Waldron,
Washington, D. C.; Mrs. Rodman Wharton, Philadelphia; Susan P. Wharton,
Philadelphia; President Mary E. Woolley, Mt. Holyoke College; Prof.
Charles Zueblin, Boston.

                  *       *       *       *       *

It was thus decided that we should hold a conference, and the next two
months were busily spent arranging for it. Among the men and women who
attended those first committee meetings were, Bishop Alexander Walters,
Mr. Ray Stannard Baker, Mr. Alexander Irvine, Dr. Owen M. Waller, Mr.
Gaylord S. White, Miss Madeline Z. Doty, Miss Isabel Eaton, besides many
of the New York signers of the Call. It was agreed that the conference
should be by invitation only, with the one open meeting at Cooper Union.
Over a thousand people were invited, the Charity Organization Hall was
secured, and, on the evening of May 30th, the conference opened with an
informal reception at the Henry Street Settlement, given by Miss Lillian
D. Wald, one of the Association’s first and oldest friends. The next
morning our deliberations began.

We have had five conferences since 1909, but I doubt whether any have
been so full of a questioning surprise, amounting swiftly to enthusiasm,
on the part of the white people in attendance. These men and women,
engaged in religious, social and educational work, for the first time
met the Negro who demands, not a pittance, but his full rights in the
commonwealth. They received a stimulating shock and one which they
enjoyed. They did not want to leave the meeting. We conferred all the
time, formally and informally, and the Association gained in those days
many of the earnest and uncompromising men and women who have since
worked unfalteringly in its cause. Mr. William Hayes Ward, senior editor
of the _Independent_, opened the conference, and Mr. Charles Edward
Russell, always the friend of those who struggle for opportunity,
presided at the stormy session at the close. The full proceedings have
been published by the Association.

Out of this conference we formed a committee of forty and secured the
services of Miss Frances Blascoer, as secretary. We were greatly
hampered by lack of funds. Important national work would present itself
which we were unable to handle. But our secretary was an excellent
organizer, and at the end of a year we had held four mass meetings, had
distributed thousands of pamphlets, and numbered our membership in the
hundreds. In May, 1910, we held our second conference in New York, and
again our meetings were attended by earnest, interested people. It was
then that we organized a permanent body to be known as the National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Its officers were:

National President, Moorfield Storey, Boston; Chairman of the Executive
Committee, William English Walling; Treasurer, John E. Milholland;
Disbursing Treasurer, Oswald Garrison Villard; Executive Secretary,
Frances Blascoer; Director of Publicity and Research, Dr. W. E. B.

The securing of a sufficient financial support to warrant our calling
Dr. DuBois from Atlanta University into an executive office in the
Association was the most important work of the second conference.

When Dr. DuBois came to us we were brought closely in touch with an
organization of colored people, formed in 1905 at Niagara and known as
the Niagara Movement. This organization had held important conferences
at Niagara, Harpers Ferry, and Boston, and had attempted a work of legal
redress along very much the lines upon which the National Association
for the Advancement of Colored People was working. Its platform, as
presented in a statement in 1905, ran as follows:

Freedom of speech and criticism.

An unfettered and unsubsidized press.

Manhood suffrage.

The abolition of all caste distinctions based simply on race and color.

The recognition of the principle of human brotherhood as a practical
present creed.

The recognition of the highest and best training as the monopoly of no
class or race.

A belief in the dignity of labor.

United effort to realize these ideals under wise and courageous

In 1910 it had conducted important civil rights cases and had in its
membership some of the ablest colored lawyers in the country, with Mr.
W. Ashbie Hawkins, who has since worked with our Association, on the
Baltimore Segregation acts, as its treasurer.

The Niagara Movement, hampered as it was by lack of funds and by a
membership confined to one race only, continued to push slowly on, but
when the larger possibilities of this new Association were clear, the
members of the Niagara Movement were advised to join, as the platforms
were practically identical. Many of the most prominent members of the
Niagara Movement thus brought their energy and ability into the service
of the Association, and eight are now serving on its Board of Directors.

Our history, after 1910, may be read in our annual reports, and in the
numbers of THE CRISIS. We opened two offices in the _Evening Post_
building. With Dr. DuBois came Mr. Frank M. Turner, a Wilberforce
graduate, who has shown great efficiency in handling our books. In
November of 1910 appeared the first number of THE CRISIS, with Dr.
DuBois as editor, and Mary Dunlop MacLean, whose death has been the
greatest loss the Association has known, as managing editor. Our
propaganda work was put on a national footing, our legal work was well
under way and we were in truth, a National Association, pledged to a
nation-wide work for justice to the Negro race.

I remember the afternoon that THE CRISIS received its name. We were
sitting around the conventional table that seems a necessary adjunct to
every Board, and were having an informal talk regarding the new
magazine. We touched the subject of poetry.

“There is a poem of Lowell’s,” I said, “that means more to me to-day
than any other poem in the world—‘The Present Crisis.’”

Mr. Walling looked up. “The Crisis,” he said. “There is the name for
your magazine, THE CRISIS.”

And if we had a creed to which our members, black and white, our
branches North and South and East and West, our college societies, our
children’s circles, should all subscribe, it should be the lines of
Lowell’s noble verse, lines that are as true to-day as when they were
written seventy years ago:


              “Once to every man and nation comes the
                  moment to decide,
              In the strife of Truth with Falsehood for
                  the good or evil side;
              Some great Cause, God’s New Messiah,
                  offering each the bloom or blight,
              Parts the goats upon the left hand, and
                  the sheep upon the right,
              And the choice goes by forever ’twixt that
                  darkness and that light.

              “Then to side with Truth is noble when we
                  share her wretched crust,
              Ere her cause bring fame and profit, and
                  ’tis prosperous to be just;
              Then it is the brave man chooses, while the
                  coward stands aside,
              Doubting in his abject spirit, till his Lord
                  is crucified,
              And the multitude make virtue of the
                  faith they had denied.”


                       LIFT EV’RY VOICE AND SING

  Lift ev’ry voice and sing
  Till earth and heaven ring.
  Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
  Let our rejoicing rise
  High as the list’ning skies,
  Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
  Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
  Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.
  Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
  Let us march on till victory is won.

  Stony the road we trod,
  Bitter the chast’ning rod.
  Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
  Yet with a steady beat,
  Have not our weary feet
  Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
  We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
  We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
  Out from the gloomy past,
  Till now we stand at last
  Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

  God of our weary years,
  God of our silent tears,
  Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
  Thou who has by Thy might
  Led us into the light.
  Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
  Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
  Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee,
  Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
  May we forever stand.
  True to our God
  True to our native land.

                     Words by JAMES WELDON JOHNSON
                       Music by ROSAMOND JOHNSON


                 Copyright by Edward M. Marks Music Co.
              R.C.A. Building, Radio City, New York, N.Y.


 ● Transcriber’s Notes:
    ○ There were no corrections made to the text.
    ○ Text that was in italics is enclosed by underscores (_italics_).

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