Ovington, Mary White

Mary White Ovington was an activist, social reformer and author. She was born in April, 1865, in Brooklyn, New York.

As the child of two northern abolitionist Unitarians, Ovington was probably predisposed to acute consciousness of social and material inequity. Her conscience was pricked early, when she heard Frederick Douglass speak in a Brooklyn church in 1890.

Racial equality was arguably the central point of a constellation of issues that motivated Ovington, but not her only concern. In addition to being an activist for racial equanimity, she was also a suffragette and a socialist. Imperialism, colonialism, and the problems of capitalism featured prominently in her writing. Her concern for social justice had deep roots. After a tour of London's East End slums in 1900, Ovington lamented in an unpublished autobiographical fragment the “life so far from the beauty and the health of the life” that she herself led. [1]

She established her credentials as a reformer first through the work of the Greenwich House, New York's first neighborhood improvement association. Ovington's early work in this context was on settlement houses and tenements, part of the larger settlement movement focused on alleviating stark material inequities among urban rich and poor in America and Britain. During this period she read widely on urban conditions, legal and de facto racial inequality, and gender issues, continuing an education she had begun while a student at Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

After the fury of the bloody 1908 race riot in Springfield, Illinois, Ovington was deeply influenced by a stirring editorial in the Independent by the influential socialist William English Walling. Ovington wrote to Walling and the two, with the social worker Dr. Henry Moskowitz, put out a call for a conference on the political and social standing of America's black population. The conference met in Februrary 1909. After a number of iterations and bureaucratic contortions, the group became the NAACP. In the following decades Ovington served in several capacities in the NAACP, including the posts of chairperson and executive secretary, and as a board member.

Ovington came to know Du Bois in the context of a study she conducted beginning in 1904 on housing and employment problems among Manhattan's black population. (The final report of Ovington's study was published in 1911 under the title Half a Man: The Status of the Negro in New York.) She and Du Bois developed a close friendship, maintained by letters and visits, and a shared sense of purpose. Early in her career Ovington was also something of a patron as well as an activist, remitting small sums of money she raised in the northeast to Atlanta University, where Du Bois was active in the newly-established Department of Social Work. David Levering Lewis, Du Bois's biographer, describes Ovington as coming “about as close as any white person ever would to being a confidante and advisor” to the man. [2]

Ovington was by most accounts (and in the context of her social circle) a moderate, in her political imagination and in her interpersonal relationships. This temperament, plus her understanding of Du Bois's own sometimes fiery disposition, made her a good mediator in some of the NAACP's internal debates.

Ovington was a prolific writer, producing several academic books and articles, a history of the NAACP, an anthology for children, several short biographies of prominent black leaders, a play, a syndicated newspaper column, and an autobiography.

Ovington died in 1951, in Newton Highlands, Massachusetts.


[1] Quoted in David Levering Lewis. W. E. B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868-1919. (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1993), 347.

[2] Ibid., 349.  

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