|W. E. B. Du Bois|
The Life of Du Bois
He was elected valedictorian of his high school and the enlightened townspeople raised the money to give him a scholarship to Fisk University in Tennessee.
At Fisk Du Bois first encountered institutional racism. Jim Crow laws meant that blacks were required to use separate drinking fountains, restaurants, restrooms, banks and schools.
He went on to graduate school and eventually became the first African American to earn a doctorate from Harvard. His thesis on the U.S. slave trade was published. After graduation, however, he was unable to get a job at a major university.
He taught at Wilberforce College in Ohio, then spent a year at the University of Pennsylvania, where in 1899 he wrote his first major book, The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study, the first sociological case study of a black community, which popularized Du Bois's phrase "the talented tenth," referring to the likelihood of one in ten black men becoming leaders of their people.
Du Bois made his name nationally with the publication in 1903 of his book The Souls of Black Folks, a collection of essays that explored the thesis that the “central problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.” (In retrospect, there were other problems of equivalent importance, unless one broadens the definition of the color line to include Nazi protocols.) One controversial essay, "Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others," attacked Washington, who founded Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Tuskegee trained blacks in agricultural and industrial skills; DuBois objected that Washington was selling out blacks by advocating silence in civil rights issues in return for vocational training opportunities.
In 1905, Du Bois met with 30 other African-American activists in Canada, near Niagara Falls, to discuss the challenges that people of color faced. They had to meet in Canada because blacks were not allowed rooms at white-run U.S. hotels.
|Jean Milholland (L) and John E. Milholland (straw|
hat R), in Holland in 1913 after their daughter
Inez secretly married Eugen Boissevain.
Last year my wife Alice Tepper Marlin and I visited the Reginald Lewis Museum in Baltimore. There I picked up a well-documented biography of Mary White Ovington by Carolyn Wedin, entitled Inheritors of the Spirit: Mary White Ovington and the Founding of the NAACP (Wiley, 1998).
Its theme squares with that of a play by Clare Coss on Mrs. Ovington and W. E. B. Du Bois, namely the importance of Ovington to Du Bois and the importance of Inez Milholland's father John E. Milholland to Ovington's work.
At the time of the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Booker T. Washington was the primary organizer of African-Americans in the United States. He favored long-term projects like schools that allowed for gradualism in advocacy, a kind of Fabian advocacy of civil rights. For example, he was okay with the concept and goal of segregation, i.e., separate but equal communities, according to Wedin (p. 131).
Du Bois, by this time a sociology professor at Atlanta University, was opposed to segregation and wanted faster movement toward civil rights for people of color. Du Bois would become the first employee of the NAACP.
Milholland and Ovington as Allies of Du Bois
The key role in this process of John E. Milholland is left out in some of the NAACP's own histories. John E. Milholland and Mary Ovington helped Du Bois create the NAACP (p. 95) as a successor to the Niagara Movement.
Milholland was born in upstate New York but his father, an Irish immigrant, was forced to return temporarily to Ireland after a fire. On their return, John E. was able to attend NYU thanks to the generosity of a Congressman who saw a young man of promise. John E. then became a reporter for, and subsequently editor of, the Ticonderoga, N.Y. newspaper. Following that, he came to New York City to write for and then edit the Tribune, which was a liberal Lincoln Republican newspaper edited at that time by Horace Greeley. Statues of Greeley may be found near City Hall and in Greeley Square.
Milholland was modestly prosperous when he worked at the Tribune and his brother headed the printer's union. Between them they settled a strike and he may have been rewarded for that. But he became extremely prosperous, on paper at least, after investing in a pneumatic tube company based on the expertise of B. C. Batcheller. He became President of the Batcheller Pneumatic Tube Co. and Wall Street ratcheted up in the value of its shares.
With his new wealth, Milholland was able to pursue his Presbyterian religion-inspired vision of a world in which wealth was more equally distributed and civil rights were widely respected. He worked first with Booker T. Washington but became impatient with Washington's gradualism. Following critiques of Washington by Du Bois in 1900-01, Milholland shifted his financial resources away from Washington and toward Du Bois.
Milholland's religion-fired activism on behalf of African-Americans contributed to a rapid decline in his fortunes. Milholland attacked as a racist Woodrow Wilson's Postmaster-General–the same man with control over lucrative contracts that were the basis for with the Batcheller Company's prosperity. His gifts to, and statements on behalf of, the cause of civil rights had an immediately negative impact on his business. He and his family paid dearly for their support of civil rights.
The 1904 edition of Polk's directory shows the Batcheller Pneumatic Tube Company as a going concern with Milholland as President and B. C. Batcheller on the board. In 1905, the company had offices in New York City and Philadelphia as well as in London, Paris and Berlin. By the Poor's directory of 1917, John E. Milholland was replaced as President and was no longer on the Board. Instead, he was replaced on the board by his son-in-law Eugen Boissevain (my mother's uncle).
Milholland met Ovington in early January 1905 at a Sunday supper at Greenwich House in Manhattan. She conveyed to Milholland her interest in working on low-income housing and he offered to take her idea to Henry Phipps. Phipps had just walked away with $2 billion (in 2015 dollars) from the creation of America’s largest corporation, Carnegie Steel, in 1901. Just as railways and railway-car manufacturers had been rolled up into giant companies in the prior two years, Carnegie Steel acquired J. P. Morgan's steel mills and thereby allowed the three largest shareholders in Carnegie Steel to cash out.
Two of those steel magnates are well known–Andrew Carnegie and his designated Chief Operating Officer Henry Clay Frick. The third one, Henry Phipps, was the less-known bookkeeper. Phipps had a social conscience because he had grown up in poverty in Pittsburgh. He was a strong supporter of Teddy Roosevelt-era progressivism. From his new fortune Phipps took $1 million (equal to about $30 million today) and by 1906 began construction work on "improved tenements" to be located on the far east side of Manhattan at 31st Street. Several iterations of the Phipps Houses were eventually built – they would become the oldest and largest nonprofit affordable housing in New York City.
Ovington proposed that a settlement-house component be included in the first, Tuskegee Model Tenement. Although Henry Phipps was initially receptive to the idea, he backed away from it at the last minute–probably because in February 1908 he opted suddenly to side with Booker T. Washington's all-deliberate-speed approach to social change (Wedin, p. 93).
Unexpectedly without a patron for her work, Ovington went back to the man who had found Phipps for her, John E. Milholland. She became a regular visitor to Milholland at his office and his apartment at the Manhattan Hotel. She said she didn't get as much time with Booker Washington as Milholland did because she was "a woman of very moderate means" (Wedin, p. 67).
Ovington visited the Adirondacks for several weeks in July and September 1905. Her biographer believes she visited John E. Milholland at that time and supports the idea that Milholland was having an affair over several months and that it was with her (Wedin, p. 67). I have read John Milholland's diary from that period and he castigates himself for his infidelity.
Besides the Phipps tenement, Milholland and Ovington worked on the Constitution League, which was a forerunner of the NAACP. The first offices of the NAACP were at the offices of the Constitution League, at 500 Fifth Avenue–at 42nd Street overlooking the New York Public Library–in Manhattan. The building now houses the North American office of Oxford University.
Milholland's activities in support of Du Bois were not unnoticed by Booker Washington. According to Du Bois's biographer, Washington threatened to use his contacts with the U.S. Post Office to terminate the Batcheller Company's large contracts for delivering mail by pneumatic tube (Wedin, p. 70), and his threat became a reality in 1916 at the time of Wilson's reelection.
In 1905-06, Ovington was the link between Du Bois's Niagara Movement and Milholland's Constitution League. Her many labors in this vineyard yielded fruit for Du Bois when she started working for him and assembled lists for the "Call" to create the NAACP in 1909.
First, Ovington brought Oswald Garrison Villard into the Du Bois camp, with several articles in the New York Evening Post, which he owned. She reported, with a subtly introduced Du Bois perspective, on:
- First, Du Bois's Niagara Movement meetings at Harper's Ferry in mid-summer of 1906, and
- Then, in August, Washington's Negro Business League in Atlanta (Wedin, pp. 74-76).
Ovington reported from the south until March 1907. Conditions, she said, were much worse in Atlanta than had appeared in the newspapers. No white man had gone to jail for killing a Negro. Whites freely purchased firearms whereas "colored fathers, in their homes, were forced by the militia to give up their means of defense" (Wedin, p. 80).
The Founding of the NAACP
The year 1908 was a difficult one for Mary Ovington because the commitment that she believed Henry Phipps had made to her was as mentioned suddenly withdrawn. A crystallizing moment for her was an article by a white journalist, William English Walling, "Race War in the North," in the Independent of September 1908. Walling was the first person to throw down the gauntlet to all Americans, to fulfill the promise of Abraham Lincoln. As Ovington wrote at the time:
Here was the first person who had sent a challenge to white and colored to battle, as the abolitionists had battled, for the full rights of the Negro. Drums beat in my heart. (Wedin, p. 106).She immediately sent a letter to Walling, but several months went by and he did not answer. After she heard him speak in New York City, she went up to him after a lecture and proposed that they create a new organization. She followed up with a second letter, and this time Walling answered, suggesting they meet with Charles Edward Russell.
In January 1909 she arrived at Walling's apartment. Russell did not show up and sent Henry Moskowitz in his place. At that meeting, the NAACP was created. They drafted a "Call" for a meeting, to be issued on Lincoln's 100th birthday. The only one of the original three who was able to make the "Call" interracial one was Ovington, based on her many contacts during the period when she was traveling around with the support of Milholland. The signers of the Call–53 people in Ovington's version, 60 in Villard's–did not all know one another, but they all knew Ovington (Wedin, p. 106).
An invited interracial organizing meeting of 300 people met in the Charity Organization building. An informer for Booker Washington reported that those present included: "Du Bois, Waldron, Walters, [Upton] Sinclair, Max, Barber, Wibecan, Dr. Moselle, Bulkeley, [John E.] Milholland, Ida Wells..." A public meeting at Cooper Union attracted 1,500 people. The resolutions "sounded much like those of Milholland's Constitution League and Du Bois's Niagara Movement". Ovington was distressed that the platform was "denounced by nearly every white man", while "a large number of colored people thought it unwise". A Committee of Forty was created to pursue the organization of the NAACP. (Wedin, pp. 110-111.)
The Wikipedia entry on the NAACP once said that it was founded by black and Jewish men, which based on Wedin's account would unfairly eliminate recognition for the huge and patient role of gentiles and women, including Milholland and Ovington. The historical record that Wikipedia keeps for each entry should show that I corrected the statement on May 18, 2008. Here is what I wrote on the Boissevain.us web site, where I was then posting my comments on these topics.
5/18/08 John E. Milholland Added to NAACP Entry in Wikipedia as First Treasurer. Until today, the Wikipedia entry for the NAACP omitted Milholland from its description of the founders. The founding was scheduled for February 12, 1909, the 100th anniversary of Lincoln's birth, and this is considered the founding date of the NAACP although it actually took place in May. The entry reads as of today: "On May 30, 1909, the Niagara Movement conference took place at New York City's Henry Street Settlement House, from which an organization of more than 40 individuals emerged, calling itself the National Negro Committee. Du Bois played a key role in organizing the event and presided over the proceedings. Also in attendance was African-American journalist and anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells-Barnett, co-founder of the NAACP. At a second conference, on May 30, 1910, members formally called the organization the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and elected the first officers (as reported by Mary White Ovington): • National President, Moorfield Storey, Boston • Chairman of the Executive Committee, William English Walling • Treasurer, John E. Milholland (Lincoln Republican and Presbyterian from NYC and Lewis, NY) • Disbursing Treasurer, Oswald Garrison Villard • Executive Secretary, Frances Blascoer • Director of Publicity and Research, Dr. W. E. B. DuBois."
On June 28, 1910 six members attended an Executive Committee meeting. Milholland moved and Ovington seconded a motion to hire W. E. B. Du Bois as director of the Department of Publicity and research of the NAACP. Later in life, Du Bois remembers Ovington, Walling and Villard as the founders of the NAACP. But if Ovington was the engine that drove the creation of the NAACP, the fuel to run it was provided by Milholland. The multi-racial NAACP spelled the end of the Niagara Movement. Du Bois saw that an organization with some establishment (white) sponsors could generate more money to pay for staff, starting with himself. By the third and fourth meetings of the NAACP in Boston and Chicago in 1912, the NAACP was well established (Wedin, pp. 120-135).
DuBois under Taft
Taft found the legacy of Abraham Lincoln to be a burden in the south. He announced in his inaugural address that he would not appoint any black men to federal jobs. This reversed Theodore Roosevelt's policy of standing firm with black appointments in the south. Taft's "Southern Policy" supported whites' protesting against black appointees. Taft removed most black office holders in the South, and made few black appointments in the North.
In 1909, Booker T. Washington argued for training blacks should be trained for industrial work, with only a few seeking higher education–he believed that in due course black people would rise socially and economically.
DuBois argued for more proactive steps toward equality, but Taft preferred to support Booker Washington's strategy. Black people in both the North and South began their drift toward the Democratic party that exploded in 1932.
Du Bois, Later Years
Ib 1910-34, DuBois edited the NAACP’s journal, The Crisis. It had more than 100,000 readers. He resigned after an ideological rift with the group. In 1935, he published Black Reconstruction, a Marxist interpretation of the post-Civil War era. At Atlanta University, where he later taught, he founded a review of race and culture called Phylon in 1940 and the same year published Dusk at Dawn, in which he examined his own career as a case study of race dynamics.
Du Bois left the NAACP but rejoined in 1944-48, breaking with the NAACP permanently after a major disagreement. He joined the Communist Party in 1961 and moved to Ghana, where he became a naturalized citizen at the age of 95. He died in Ghana in 1963, the day before Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his historic "I Have A Dream" speech at the March on Washington.
The NAACP is still going strong, fighting racism and bridging cultural divides. It is headed by my friend Cornell Brooks. Last year on August 15 a predecessor of Brooks as an officer of the NAACP, former Chairman Julian Bond, died.
Principal Source: Carolyn Wedin, Inheritors of the Spirit: Mary White Ovington and the Founding of the NAACP (Wiley, 1998).