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Alumni Spotlight: Mary White Ovington, Class of 1890

Mary White Ovington, Class of 1890, was a white activist, journalist, and co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). With parents involved in the anti-slavery and women’s rights movements, she grew up steeped in activism. In her early years of adulthood, she attended Packer and received an education unavailable to many young women of the era.

She became acutely conscious of her interest in the fight for civil rights after hearing Frederick Douglass give a speech in a Brooklyn church. After graduating from Radcliffe College and returning to Brooklyn, she began to study racial inequality as it manifested in the housing and employment conditions of the city. Through this work, she became acquainted with figures well-known in various movements for social justice, such as Ida B. Wells, Max Eastman, and W.E.B. Du Bois.

After the 1908 anti-Black riots in Springfield, IL, Ovington wrote to socialist William English Walling, who had publicly called for civil rights for Black Americans. Joined by social worker Dr. Henry Moskowitz, they organized a national conference on the political and social positions of the African-American community. This became a permanent body echoing DuBois’s Niagara Movement, known as the NAACP. For nearly four decades, Ovington served as a board member, executive secretary, and chairman of the NAACP. She was a vocal advocate for class, gender, and racial equality until her death in 1951. 

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