Mary White Ovington

Citation metadata

Date: Oct. 8, 2003
Document Type: Biography
Length: 1,219 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1290L

Document controls

Main content

About this Person
Born: April 11, 1865 in New York, New York, United States
Died: July 15, 1951 in Newton Highlands, Massachusetts, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Civil rights activist
Updated:Oct. 8, 2003

Family: Born April 11, 1865, in Brooklyn, NY; died July, 1951, in Newton, MA; daughter of Theodore Tweedy (an abolitionist reformer) and Ann Louise (an owner of a glass and china importing firm and an abolitionist reformer; maiden name, Ketcham) Ovington. Education: Attended Packer Collegiate Institute, 1888-91; and Radcliffe College, 1891-93. Politics: American Socialist Party. Religion: Unitarian.


Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, NY, registrar, 1893; Greenpoint Settlement, Brooklyn, NY, 1895-1903; Greenwich House, New York City, fellow and social worker, 1904-05; worked as a journalist for several publications; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, cofounder, 1909, served as board member, interim executive secretary, chair of board committees, vice president, acting chair of board, chair, and treasurer, 1909-47.



  • Half a Man: The Status of the Negro in New York, foreword by Franz Boas, Longmans, Green (New York City), 1911, Viking Press (New York, NY), 1927, Schocken Books (New York, NY), 1969, Negro Universities Press (New York City), foreword by Charles Flint Kellogg, Hill & Wang (New York City), 1969.
  • Hazel (juvenile), Crisis (New York, NY), 1913, illustrated by Harry Roseland, Books for Libraries Press (Freeport, NY), 1972.
  • The Shadow (novel), Harcourt, Brace and Howe (New York City), 1920, Books for Libraries Press (Freeport, NY), 1972.
  • The Awakening (play), 1923, Books for Libraries Press (Freeport, NY), 1972.
  • Portraits in Color, 1927, Books for Libraries Press (Freeport, NY), 1971.
  • Zeke (juvenile), illustrated by Natalie H. Davis, Harcourt, Brace (New York, NY), 1931.
  • Black and White Sat down Together: The Reminiscences of an NAACP Founder, (Baltimore), c. 1930s, Feminist Press at the City University of New York (New York, NY), 1995.
  • The Walls Came Tumbling Down, 1947, Arno Press (New York City), 1969, Schocken Books (New York, NY), 1970.



Socialist reformer Mary White Ovington, the daughter of white abolitionists, co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and remained active in its management for almost forty years. As a social worker and journalist, she made her life work the improvement of conditions for the poor, especially for women and black Americans. In addition to working as a journalist and penning a few children's novels, Ovington wrote a book-length study of race problems in New York City and a memoir.

Ovington was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1865, the third of Ann Louise and Theodore Tweedy Ovington's four children. As a girl, Ovington inherited a strong legacy of abolitionist and Unitarian free thought passed along from her activist parents. From the Reverend John White Chadwick, minister of the Second Unitarian Church in Brooklyn Heights, Ovington absorbed a philosophy of women's rights, optimistic evolutionism, and social reform. After attending private schools in Brooklyn Heights, she studied at Packer Collegiate Institute from 1888 to 1891, and then attended Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

At Radcliffe, Ovington studied under economic historian William J. Ashley, who inspired in the young woman an awareness of the need for more radical social reform. According to Daniel W. Cryer, writing in Notable American Women, The Modern Period, this experience led her to view social problems as a matter of social class. After leaving college in 1893, Ovington began a career as a social worker. She joined the Socialist Party of America around 1905.

After hearing a speech by Booker T. Washington at New York's Social Reform Club in 1903, Ovington became aware that the "Negro problem" in America had not been solved by the Reconstruction-era amendments to the constitution, as her parents had taught her, and that racial discrimination was a real problem in the North. She joined the Greenwich House settlement in Manhattan, where her social work clients were blacks, and began in 1904 to compile research which was published as Half a Man: The Status of the Negro in New York, in 1911.

Her social work brought Ovington in contact with New York's black leaders, who further educated her on the particular problems of the black community. She began a correspondence with W. E. B. Du Bois, and for a time lived as the only white tenant in a black tenement. She contributed articles about her experiences to such publications as the New York Evening Post and Charities.

In 1909, in response to an ugly race riot the previous year in Springfield, Illinois, Ovington joined with a small group of similarly committed reformers to found the NAACP. The organization's goals--considered radical at that time--were to end racial discrimination and segregation, and to promote legal and civil rights, including the right to vote. Though Ovington continued to pursue other issues such as feminist reform, pacifism, and anti-imperialist projects, her primary focus was to remain on NAACP work. For nearly forty years, she served the organization in several capacities: board member, vice president, acting chair of the board, chair, and treasurer. She also helped to raise money, shape policy, and create new branches of the organization. One of her most important contributions as chair was her successful effort to persuade the NAACP to direct its resources toward obtaining equal federal funding for black and white school systems. This campaign paved the way for the attack in the 1940s on the "separate but equal" policy that had been Constitutional dogma from 1896 until it was finally struck down by the Warren Court in Brown v. Board of Education.

During her years of social activism, Ovington continued to write for magazines. Her "Book Chats," which promoted the cultural pluralism and artistic vigor of the Harlem Renaissance, were distributed to more than two hundred newspapers during the 1920s by the NAACP News Service. She wrote a book of profiles of black leaders, Portraits in Color (1927), which includes entries on such notables as Marcus Garvey, W. E. B. Du Bois, George Washington Carver, Langston Hughes, and Paul Robeson. She also wrote a memoir, several children's books, and a novel.

Ovington's memoir, Black and White Sat down Together, which had originally been published in the 1930s in Baltimore African-American newspaper, was republished in 1995 by the Feminist Press of the City University of New York. Though a critic for Kirkus Reviews found the book "often tedious" and lacking in insight, other critics appreciated it as a work of historic importance. "Ovington presents valuable firsthand close-ups of Du Bois and his rival, Booker T. Washington . . . [and] makes interesting observations about black theater, fiction and poetry in the interwar years," observed a Publishers Weekly reviewer. Lolly Ockerstrom, writing for Wilson Library Bulletin, noted that though the book was plainly written and unassuming, it "fills a gap in both black history and women's writing."

Though Ovington had strengths as a journalist, she was not highly regarded as a writer of fiction. Her novel The Shadow (1920), was dismissed as "a poorly written novel of mistaken racial identity" by Daniel W. Cryer in Notable American Women. Most of Ovington's numerous children's novels also quickly went out of print, though Hazel, which tells the story of a young Boston black girl who spends a winter in the Deep South at the turn of the century, was reprinted in 1972. Ovington also wrote a play, The Awakening.

After retiring from her work for the NAACP in 1947, Ovington moved to Massachusetts, where she lived during her final years with her sister. She died in July 1951 in Newton Highlands, Massachusetts.




  • Sicherman, Barbara and Carol Hurd Green, Notable American Women, the Modern Period. Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1980.
  • Wedin, Carolyn, Inheritors of the Spirit: Mary White Ovington and the Founding of the NAACP, Wiley (New York City), 1998.


  • Black Scholar, summer, 1995, p. 72.
  • Booklist, May 1, 1995, p. 1538.
  • Kirkus Reviews, February 15, 1995, pp. 205-206.
  • Kliatt, November, 1996, p. 23.
  • Library Journal, April 1, 1995, p. 110.
  • Publishers Weekly, May 15, 1995, p. 66.
  • Reference & Research Book News, September, 1995, p. 13.
  • Wilson Library Bulletin, June 1995, p. 108.
  • Women's Review of Books, June, 1995, p. 24.*


Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1000127162