Mary White Ovington, NAACP founding member

The NAACP was founded today in 1909.  The first member, Mary White Ovington, wrote a history of the NAACP that begins like this:

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 3rd, 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 Love-joy 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.”