Educated at Packer Collegiate Institute and Radcliffe College, Ovington became involved in the campaign for civil rights in 1890 after hearing Frederick Douglass speak in a Brooklyn church. She later wrote: "I had never seen Frederick Douglass before and I was never to see him again, but that night was to me a great event. I had come face to face with one of my heroes. He was one of the great group of men and women who had risked all for freedom."
In 1895 she helped found the Greenpoint Settlement in Brooklyn. Ovington met Jane Addams, the founder of Hull House, soon afterwards. Ovington remembers Addams telling her: "If you want to be surrounded by second-rate ability, you will dominate your settlement. If you want the best ability, you must allow great liberty of action among your residents."
Appointed head of the Greenpoint Settlement the following year, Ovington remained until 1904 when she was appointed fellow of the Greenwich House Committee on Social Investigations. Over the next five years she studied employment and housing problems in black Manhattan. During her investigations she met William Du Bois, an African American from Harvard University, and she was introduced to the founding members of the Niagara Movement.
Influenced by the ideas of William Morris, Ovington joined the Socialist Party in 1905, where she met people such as Daniel De Leon, Asa Philip Randolph, Floyd Dell, Max Eastman and Jack London, who argued that racial problems were as much a matter of class as of race. Ovington wrote for radical journals and newspapers such as, The Masses, New York Evening Post and The Call. She also worked with Ray Stannard Baker and influenced the content of his book, Following the Color Line (1908).
On 14th August, 1908, William English Walling heard about the Springfield Riot in Illinois, where a white mob attacked local African Americans. During the riot two were lynched, six killed, and over 2,000 African Americans were forced to leave the city. Walling decided to visit Springfield "to write a broad, sympathetic and non-partizan account".
On 3rd September 1908, Walling published his article, Race War in the North. Walling complained that "a large part of the white population" in the area were waging "permanent warfare with the Negro race". He quoted a local newspaper as saying: "It was not the fact of the whites' hatred toward the negroes, but of the negroes' own misconduct, general inferiority or unfitness for free institutions that were at fault." Walling argued that they only way to reduce this conflict was "to treat the Negro on a plane of absolute political and social equality".
Walling argued that the people behind the riots were seeking economic benefits: "If the white laborers get the Negro laborers' jobs; if masters of Negro servants are able to keep them under the discipline of terror as I saw them doing in Springfield; if white shopkeepers and saloon keepers get their colored rivals' trade; if the farmers of neighboring towns establish permanently their right to drive poor people out of their community, instead of offering them reasonable alms; if white miners can force their negro fellow-workers out and get their positions by closing the mines, then every community indulging in an outburst of race hatred will be assured of a great and certain financial reward, and all the lies, ignorance and brutality on which race hatred is based will spread over the land."
Walling suggested that racists were in danger of destroying democracy in the United States: "The day these methods become general in the North every hope of political democracy will be dead, other weaker races and classes will be persecuted in the North as in the South, public education will undergo an eclipse, and American civilization will await either a rapid degeneration or another profounder and more revolutionary civil war, which shall obliterate not only the remains of slavery but all other obstacles to a free democratic evolution that have grown up in its wake. Yet who realizes the seriousness of the situation, and what large and powerful body of citizens is ready to come to their aid.
Ovington responded to Race War in the North by writing to William English Walling and inviting him and a few friends to her apartment on West Thirty-Eighth Street. Ovington was impressed with Walling: "It always seemed to me that William English Walling looked like a Kentuckian, tall, slender; and though he might be talking the most radical socialism, he talked it with the air of an aristocrat."
Also at the meeting was Charles Edward Russell. He argued: "Wittingly or unwittingly, the entire South was virtually a unit in support of hatred and the ethics of the jungle. The Civil War raged there still, with hardly abated passions. The North was utterly indifferent where it was not covertly or sneakingly applausive of helotry... The whole of the society from which Walling emerged was crystallized against the black man; to view the darker tinted American as a human being was not good form; to insist upon his rights was insufferable gaucherie."
They decided to form the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP). The first meeting of the NAACP was held on 12th February, 1909. Early members included Ovington, William English Walling, Anna Strunsky, Josephine Ruffin, Mary Talbert, Lillian Wald, Florence Kelley, Mary Church Terrell, Inez Milholland, Jane Addams, George Henry White, William Du Bois, Charles Edward Russell, John Dewey, Charles Darrow, Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker, William Dean Howells, Fanny Garrison Villard, Oswald Garrison Villard, Ida Wells-Barnett, Sophonisba Breckinridge, John Haynes Holmes, Mary McLeod Bethune and George Henry White.
In 1910 Ovington was appointed as executive secretary of the NAACP. The following year she attended the Universal Races Congress in London. Ovington remained active in the struggle for women's suffrage and as a pacifist opposed America's involvement in the First World War. During the war Ovington supported Asa Philip Randolph and his magazine, The Messenger, which campaigned for black civil rights.
After the war Ovington served the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People as board member, executive secretary and chairman. The NAACP fought a long legal battle against segregation and racial discrimination in housing, education, employment, voting and transportation. They appealed to the Supreme Court to rule that several laws passed by southern states were unconstitutional and won three important judgments between 1915-23 concerning voting rights and housing.
The NAACP was criticised by some members of the African American community. Booker T. Washington opposed the group because it proposed an outspoken condemnation of racist policies in contrast to his policy of quiet diplomacy behind the scenes. Members of the organization were physically attacked by white racists. John R. Shillady, executive secretary of the NAACP was badly beaten up when he visited Austin, Texas in 1919.
Ovington wrote several books and articles including a study of black Manhattan, Half a Man: The Status of the Negro (1911), Status of the Negro in the United States (1913), Socialism and the Feminist Movement (1914), an anthology for black children, The Upward Path (1919), biographical sketches of prominent African Americans, Portraits in Color (1927), an autobiography, Reminiscences (1932) and a history of the NAACP entitled, Walls Come Tumbling Down (1947).
Ovington who retired as a board member of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People in 1947 and in doing so, ended her thirty-eight years service with the organisation.
Mary White Ovington died in 1951.
I had never seen Frederick Douglass before and I was never to see him again, but that night was to me a great event. I had come face to face with one of my heroes. He was one of the great group of men and women who had risked all for freedom.
There was a fervour for settlement work in the nineties, for learning working-class conditions by living among the workers and sharing, to a small extent, in their lives. Toynbee Hall, London, Hull House, Greenwich House, the Henry Street Settlement, these were a few familiar names.
I knew Jane Addams and have never forgotten her piece of advice to me: "If you want to be surrounded by second-rate ability, you will dominate your settlement. If you want the best ability, you must allow great liberty of action among your residents."
Jane Addams's name today is among the most famous in the world. But perhaps few people realize the incalculable good she has done in helping others to enlarge and glorify their own work. Many people can build their fortune by using others. Few can encourage ability without dominating it.
Editors throughout the country gave their opinions. "We have bitter contempt," the Richmond Leader said, "for the whites who participated in it and illustrated that degeneracy will seek its level."
"This miscegenation dinner was loathsome enough to consign the whole fraternity of perverts who participated in it to undying infamy," said the St. Louis Dispatch.
Worst of all the high priestess, Miss Ovington, whose father is rich and who affiliates five days in every week with Negro men and dines with them at her home in Brooklyn on Sunday. She could have had a hundred thousand Negroes at the Bacchanal feast had she waved the bread tray. But the horror of it is she could take white girls into the den. This is the feature that should alarm and arouse Northern society.
I joined the pacifists because I had not the slightest use for the cause of which either side fought. I liked Germany better than any other European country, and I couldn't see, with England's record in Ireland and India, why she should be considered less imperialistic than her neighbour. They seemed to me all tarred with the same brush and when America entered it was just the same. Had ours been a war to end some form of slavery, like the Civil war, I doubt whether my pacifism would have held.
I am writing to you as an advisory member of the National Woman's Party asking if you will arrange that at the meeting, February fifteenth, a colored woman be invited to speak. I would suggest as the speaker, Mrs. Mary B. Talbert, until last June president of the Federation of Colored Women, and this summer one of the ten official members of the International Council of Women which met at Christiana. Mrs. Talbert is able, liberal in thought, and perhaps the best known colored woman in the United States today.
There was little voting and much terrorizing of Negroes in the South during the past elections and at Ocoee, Florida, there was a massacre. But equally sinister was the refusing to register women at such a place as Hampton, Virginia, where Hampton Institute has through many years endeavored to maintain kindly feelings between the two races, and yet where colored women were so insulted when they attempted to register that one woman said: "I could kill the clerk who questioned me; I could kill his wife and children."
If the South means to awaken a spirit like this it will eventually have war to face. But I believe that the Negro woman can win her right to vote if she is upheld by the rest of the country. The thinking southern woman is generally more fairminded than the southern man, but she cannot secure justice for the colored woman without she has the backing of all of us.
Will you not therefore, endeavor to have a committee appointed out of your great meeting in February which shall investigate and take some action regarding the status of the colored woman? The Woman's Party must have in its membership, South as well as North, women of broad enough vision and deep enough purpose to attack this problem. And if the women attack it, it will be solved.
Not being a member of the National Woman's Party, I wrote to the members of the National Advisory Council whom I knew asking them if they would interest themselves in having a colored woman appear on the program of the Woman's Party Conference in Washington in February. Mrs. Brannan wrote me enthusiastically that the New York State Branch of the Woman's Party unanimously decided in favor of a colored speaker upon the program, but she telephoned me yesterday that you did not find this possible and asked me to address my communication directly to you.
The difficulty, as I understand it, seems to be that it has been necessary for the Woman's Party to restrict its program to representatives from organizations which have undertaken a more or less distinct feminist program and that Mrs. Talbert, whose name I suggested as today the most distinguished colored woman speaker in the country and as an ex-President of the National Association of Colored Women, would not be able to speak at your session because she does not represent a feminist organization.
May I point out, however, that Mrs. Talbert does represent the colored women of the United States and that no white woman can today represent the colored women of this country. Owing to our caste system, these women are little known by white women and carry on their organization largely distinct from the organizations of your and my race. This being the case, it is surely eminently proper that a meeting which has as one of its objects the honoring of the great feminists of the nineteenth century should have on its program a representative colored woman. Indeed, I think when your statue of Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton is unveiled and it is realized that no colored woman has been given any part in your great session, the omission will be keenly felt by thousands of people throughout the country.
Her delicately pale blue eyes, her placid and sensitive face, and her beautifully tailored pastel clothes leave breathless and defenseless those who meet her for the first time after becoming angered because of her views. When, instead of the grubbily dressed, frantic-eyed, loose-moralled female which neurotic enemies always picture in their mines as typical of those who speak out for minorities, such visitors to Miss Ovington's office find her quite different, it is usually some time before they can gather their wits together enough to launch the planned attack.