Coloring History

This is Black History Month, perhaps an appropriate time to call attention to an aspect of black history that has been papered over and all but forgotten in the official accounts and in what is taught in schools.

How many people today, black or white, know that the National Association for Colored People was founded by three white folks, two WASPS and a Jew, and that it was led and funded until well into the last century by whites, many of them Jews?  It is understandable that after a hundred years some degree of historical Alzheimers may appear in the memory of the organization-as it does on its web-site-but perhaps it is time to remember the truth about how it all happened.

Exactly one hundred years ago, on the centenary of Abraham Lincoln's birth and just one hundred years before a man of color would be elected to the Presidency of the United States, the situation in the Southern states was dreadful for dark-skinned Americans.  Most eked out a living as tenant farmers, exploited by the owners of the land they worked.  They were prevented from voting and their children, if they attended school at all, went barefoot to ramshackle buildings with few books or other supplies.  Negroes (the polite term then, which we will adopt for this article) were subject to arson, rape, and mob murder by lynching, with little or no interference by the elected authorities.  In many places it was a crime for black and white to frequent the same place at the same time.  The South was a society of complete and brutally enforced segregation.

Northern indignation was roused by a race riot at Springfield, Illinois in the summer of 1908.  It began when the local newspaper ran a story about a white woman who claimed she had been raped by a black man. Police arrested the accused man and took him to the city jail. A crowd of angry white citizens gathered and demanded the prisoner, but the local Sheriff had been able to secretly transport him to safety.  Enraged, the crowd trashed homes and businesses belonging to Jews downtown and to Negroes in black neighborhoods.  A man who tried to defend himself was killed, his barber shop burned and his body hung from a tree.  By this time an estimated crowd of 12,000 people had gathered to watch black-owned homes burning.  Realizing that the local authorities were powerless in the face of the crowd, the governor called out the state militia.  Order was restored, but not before an elderly black man married to a white woman had been lynched.  The riots left 40 homes and 24 businesses in ruins.  A grand jury indicted nearly 80 individuals for participation in the riots but only one man was convicted.  He was a Russian Jew who peddled vegetables, and he was convicted of stealing a sword from a member of the militia.  The woman whose story had started it all later admitted that her accusation was false.

Articles on the riots appeared in newspapers and magazines throughout the rest of the country.  One, titled "Race War in the North," by journalist William English Walling in The Independent described the atrocities committed in the land of Abraham Lincoln and accused Northerners of sanctioning what they failed to put a stop to.  He called for a revival of the spirit of the abolitionists and declared "we must come to treat the Negro on a plane of absolute political and social equality... .Yet who realizes the seriousness of the situation, and what large and powerful body of citizens is ready to come to their aid?"

The article came to the attention of Mary White Ovington, a suffragette and political activist who had been studying the lives of Negroes in New York, living among them in a tenement and writing for Socialist publications like The Masses and The Call.  She had met William DuBois and was acquainted with other black activists

Mary White Ovington asked Walling to meet with her to discuss possible kinds of action to help the Negro cause.  He invited her to join him and Doctor Henry Moskowitz , a member of  Mayor John Puroy Mitchell‘s administration and a leader of the Ethical Culture Movement who had been doing social work among immigrants from Eastern Europe. "It was then," Ovington wrote later, "that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was a little room of a New York apartment."

The three decided to launch a campaign with a national conference on the rights of Negroes on the centennial of Lincoln's birthday, February 12, 1909. Among those who joined Ovington, Moskowitz, and Walling and his Russian Jewish wife in the earliest days of the new Association was Oswald Garrison Villard, whose New York Evening Post would prove a valuable means of disseminating information about discrimination and who issued a call for civil and political liberty for all American citizens.

The response was immediate and encouraging, leading to the formation of a National Negro Committee which in 1910 became known as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) with Mary White Ovington as its executive secretary and including in its ranks such well known figurers as Jane Addams, John Dewey, Lincoln Steffens, William Lloyd Garrison, William Dean Howells, Rabbi Stephen Wise, W.E.B. DuBois, who would edit the Association's publication" The Crisis," and Lillian Wald, founder of the Henry Street Settlement, where the conference was held.  The elected officers were a roster of distinguished WASP names: Moorfield Storey, William English Walling, John E. Milholland, and Oswald Garrison Villard.  The one Negro on the Board was Dr. W.E.B. DuBois.  The NAACP's first black president was not elected until 1975, the first black Board chairman in 1935.

Writing about the early years in The Walls Came Tumbling Down, Mary White Ovington said,

We used to pride ourselves on never knowing how many white members we had and how many colored-we do still.  It would be correct, however, to say that more board work was done at this time by white than by colored.  In the field, the situation was the reverse....

As our program was directed primarily against segregation this almost exclusive employment of whites may sound out of place, but it was the result of circumstances.  Few colored people were trained to take such executive positions as we had to offer, and also few had the leisure of our volunteer white workers.

In the beginning, according to Ovington, there was constant dissention among the colored members, among the white members, and between colored and white members, proving that whatever their skin hues, they were all human.

Two Jewish brothers, Arthur and Joel Spingarn, an attorney and an academic, were among the most important leaders from the beginnings of the NAACP.  They joined the organization in 1910 and remained actively involved for the rest of their lives, recruiting for its Board such Jewish leaders as the philanthropists Jacob Schiff and Julius Rosenwald and Rabbi Stephen Wise.  Contributions began to flow in.

Joel, who had been a professor of comparative literature at Columbia University, became the NAACP's second president and was chairman of its Board from 1913 until his death in 1939. Arthur headed the all-important Legal Committee until 1939, when he succeeded Joel as president.  Both were crucial over the years in pursuing anti-lynching legislation and introducing court cases challenging disenfranchisement, Jim Crow discrimination in public transportation and accommodations, and segregation in schools and in the armed forces.  It was Joel Spingarn who defined the NAACP's purpose as the fight for civil rights, leaving aside for other organizations such concerns as the creation of jobs.

Joel Spingarn was a fiery speaker whose eloquence moved many audiences.  At one rally he spoke the words, later to be immortalized by Martin Luther King, Jr., "I have a dream..."  His dream was of "a unified Negro population..."

Langston Hughes wrote about the Spingarns, in Fight for Freedom:

In January, 1914, Dr. Joel E. Spingarn, distinguished professor of English at Columbia University, was elected chairman of the Board of Directors.  A man of means, he was able to give a great deal of his time and effort to the young organization.  His charm and culture enabled him to interest others like himself in its objectives-persons with influence in high places or with access to the media of public opinion.  As a scholar steeped in the humanities, he had the interest of all human beings at heart.  As an American, he wished to see his country free of racial stigmas.  Within the month, Joel Spingarn held conferences and addressed meetings in eight cities, spreading the gospel of the NAACP throughout the Middle West, soliciting support, recruiting members, and creating good will.

His brother, Arthur B. Spingarn, then associated with Charles Studin, took over supervision of the legal work of the NAACP.  For twenty-seven years thereafter Arthur Spingarn served as chairman of legal defense without charge to the Association, and often persuaded other distinguished attorneys to lend their services without remuneration.  The Spingarn-Studin offices were the rent-free legal headquarters of the NAACP for a number of years.

In 1913 Joel established the Spingarn Medal to be awarded annually for distinguished merit and achievement among American Negroes, intending to call public attention to the existence of their outstanding contributions in science and other fields.

Early on, the NAACP positioned itself on the side of DuBois, who favored agitation and protest, against the philosophy of Booker T. Washington, who preached accommodation and thought the way ahead for the Negro lay in gradual education rather than in political action.  In the early years there was disagreement among members of the Board on how critical of Washington  DuBois should be in his speeches and his editorials in The Crisis.  In this clash of ideologies, confrontation vs. conciliation, Joel Spingarn, as chairman of the Board, supported DuBois.  Years later DuBois dedicated his book Dusk to Dawn "To keep the memory of Joel Spingarn, scholar and knight."

When in 1915 Spingarn and Villard threatened to resign in a heated disagreement over the powers of the Board and those of the executive officers, there were pleas from all sides, black and white alike, for them to stay.  One of the original members of the Niagara Group, an early precursor of the NAACP, lauded Joel's "happy combination of conservatism and radicalism-conservatism on non-essentials and radicalism whenever principle is involved-the qualities so necessary in a great leader in a great propaganda."

From the beginning the policy of the NAACP was biracial.  By example they denied the segregation that was practiced almost everywhere.   Prominent white people lent their prestige to offset the attitudes of white Southerners and they contributed money.  Often they were brought into the fold by being introduced to distinguished Negroes at small gatherings hosted by people with such well known names as Lewisohn, Morgenthau, and Villard.  According to Charles Flint Kellog, author of  NAACP: A History of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, "White leadership in the new movement...was in a large measure composed of Jewish and Unitarian clergymen and laymen."

The Wilson administration and the post-World War I years saw an increase in discrimination, much of it on the part of the federal government, which practiced and thus sanctioned segregation, and a rising tide of violence against returning Negro soldiers.  Joel Spingarn, Jane Addams, and Henry Moskowitz worked tirelessly for anti-discrimination laws and voting rights to be included in the 1912 party platforms, but without success.  President Wilson told Villard he "honestly thought segregation to be in the interest of the colored people."  Anti-intermariage laws were passed by many states, along with residential housing ordinances.  And with the great migration of Negroes to the north came segregation in schools, secondary and higher education.

A significant victory on the civil rights front was won in 1917 when Moorfield Storey argued a case before the Supreme Court that declared housing ordinances a violation of the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. At this time because of the color line in the legal profession there were few Negro lawyers experienced enough to argue such cases.  Joel Spingarn had spearheaded interest in trying the case, despite apathy on the part of the public, both black and white.  And Arthur Spingarn as legal counsel continued to direct investigation and litigation in cases of discrimination in graduate and professional schools and hospitals.

When war broke out, Joel Spingarn joined the army as an intelligence officer and began to campaign for officers' training facilities for Negroes.  Integrated camps were out of the question, but despite concerted objections and bureaucratic stalling, Spingarn managed to win over the Secretary of War and a training camp for Negro officers was established, opening the way for them to become leaders rather than mere followers.  Spingarn was criticized for assenting to the segregated camp, but insisted that it was expedient and would set a precedent more practical than standing on principle.  Spingarn succeeded in having DuBois offered a commission, but for various reasons including the opposition of Negro newspapers and his own reluctance to leave The Crisis in other hands, DuBois' commission was never granted.

The postwar years saw a rise in violence.  In the rural South, colored soldiers were lynched for having appeared on the streets in uniform.  When perpetrators were indicted, armed mobs attended the trials and juries brought in verdicts in record time.  As they did in the cases of colored defendants, always declared guilty and ripe for lynching.  It took years, but finally in 1923 the Supreme Court, in a decision written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, ruled that a trial in a mob-dominated court was a miscarriage of justice.  All of the work-investigation, trial preparation, and argument before the court-was due to the work over the years of NAACP's staff, supervised by legal counsel Arthur Spingarn.

In 1919, as efforts were being made for passage of an anti-lynching bill, Herbert Seligmann, a Jewish journalist and author of books on the problems of Negro citizens, became the first director of publicity.

The protests and publicity had called attention to the horrors and injustices, and race violence was now being seen by thoughtful people in the north as well as the south as a national problem, to be dealt with by means of federal legislation.

The end of the first decade of the NAACP was a watershed  moment in its history.  The era of the original leadership of liberal philanthropic WASPs and Jews was coming to an end as members of the old guard retired or passed away. And due to the success of their efforts, there was now a cadre of younger blacks capable of carrying on the work.  Whites continued to serve on the national Board, but the executive positions devolved to Negro lawyers, a group that had hardly existed when the NAACP began its work.  They took over direction of the legal efforts to secure the rights of citizenship to American blacks, and funding from now on was supplied mainly by the membership. 
Writing long afterward about the national conference held in 1919, ten years after that meeting in a little New York apartment, Mary White Ovington said, "Time has shown that white direction was short-lived.  [By then] the NAACP, started by whites, was being organized all over the United States by Negroes."  For them, their job was just beginning.  For others, their job had been done.

It is worth remembering not only those who today are honored as heroes but all of those who came to the struggle early and kept it going until others were prepared to take their place.   And it should be remembered by those who benefited from their tireless efforts who the first real friends of African Americans were.
If you experience technical problems, please write to