Oswald Villard, the NAACP and The Nation

Oswald Villard, the NAACP and The Nation

Oswald Villard, the NAACP and The Nation

In 1909, when the founders of the NAACP needed help organizing their new civil rights group, they reached out to Oswald Garrison Villard, The Nation’s future editor and owner.


In 1909, when the founders of the NAACP needed help organizing their new civil rights group, they reached out to Oswald Garrison Villard, The Nation’s future editor and owner.

February 12 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The “new abolition movement,” as it was sometimes called, owes its existence in large measure to Oswald Garrison Villard, grandson of William Lloyd Garrison, the Great Abolitionist. It was Villard who wrote the Lincoln’s Birthday “call” — a summons to action in protest of the political and social disabilities of the Negro and a proposal for the national conference which led ultimately to the creation of the NAACP. It was Villard who mapped out the plan for organization of the new movement as it gathered momentum, and it was he, with his dominating personality, his drive and vigor, his dedication to the Garrison ideals and his fearless and outspoken determination, who held the group together in the early and difficult years.

The high point in the curtailment of the political, economic and civil rights of the Negro had been reached by the turn of the century. The waves of violence, intimidation and lynching in both North and South had brought about a “new slavery,” the identification of color with degraded social conditions, giving countenance to laws and attitudes increasingly detrimental to the Negro.

In the South, Booker T. Washington tried to advance the status of the Negro through a program promoting Negro business, the buying of land and technical education. Toward civil and political rights, he adopted a policy of expediency and accommodation. This policy of moderation was protested by a group of Negro intellectuals — W. E. B. Du Bois’ “talented tenth.” His group, however, had been unable to pierce the strong wall of political power held by Washington, who had the majority of Negroes, as well as Southern whites, on his side. The conflict between the two points of view led to the alignment of “conservatives” and “radicals” within the Negro community.

White social workers and reformers in the North were also protesting the spreading racial discrimination. Among the white champions of the Negro was Villard, who all his life took pride in the Garrison tradition, a feeling carefully fostered by his uncles, the sons of William Lloyd Garrison. In 1897, Villard joined the editorial staff of the New York Evening Post, owned by his father. He was assigned to a desk in the office of his uncle, Wendell Phillips Garrison, then editor of The Nation, which was at that time the literary supplement to the Evening Post. Later, in 1918, Villard became editor and owner of The Nation, and he directed the publication in these capacities until 1932. From 1932-35 he was The Nation‘s publisher and a contributing editor.

In 1902, Robert C. Ogden, president of the Southern Education Board, invited Villard to become a member of his party traveling by special train to the annual Conference on Education in the South. This trip gave him new and deep insights into the living conditions of Negroes in the South. “I feel as if I had emerged from darkest America and the sense of the wrongs of the people of color is strong upon me,” he wrote his mother after visiting a small Negro school in a rural community in South Carolina. The conviction that he must take an active part in the cause of Negro education led him to become, in the following year, the president of the Board of Directors of the Manassas Industrial School in Virginia and to support the work at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama under the direction of Booker T. Washington.

By 1908, Villard was beginning to visualize a program of wider scope than that offered by the industrial schools. He had an idea that the colored people should band together under a common “clan” in the support of a large national organization for their defense. He wanted the organization to be incorporated and to raise money by securing gifts and bequests. A central defense committee would employ lawyers to prosecute lynchers, take cases of discrimination into the courts, agitate for the restoration of civil rights where denied, and to act as a publicity bureau to get facts and statistics to public attention. He believed that a united Negro population would support this project; and he hoped that the celebration by the colored people of the fiftieth anniversary of John Brown’s death might inspire its birth.

It was not the John Brown celebration, however, that stimulated the formation of the kind of organization Villard had in mind, but the outbreak of race riots in Springfield, Illinois, in August, 1908. It was a particularly horrifying event; two persons were lynched, six others killed and over fifty wounded before 4,000 militiamen were able to gain control after two days of riots.

Villard expressed his indignation in an editorial in the Evening Post. He looked upon the outbreak as the climax of a wave of crime and lawlessness that was sweeping the country, and he was incensed that lynchings and anti-Negro riots should occur in the home city of Abraham Lincoln.

An even stronger protest came from William English Walling in The Independent. Walling was a wealthy Southerner, a settlement-house worker and Socialist who, with Jane Addams and Lillian Wald, had founded the National Woman’s Trade Union League. He was shocked that the press and public opinion should accept race hatred and warfare as inevitable in a Northern city, and he appealed to the nation to meet this attack on the principles of democracy.

His challenge brought instant response from Mary White Ovington, a social worker among Negroes in New York City. She was a Socialist, a Unitarian and the descendant of an abolitionist. She prevailed upon Walling to hold a meeting at his apartment early in January, 1909. They were joined by Dr. Henry Moskovitz, another New York social worker. Miss Ovington later reminisced, “We like to remember that of the three people present, one was the descendant of an old-time abolitionist, the second was a Jew, and the third a Southerner.”

At the first informal gathering it was decided that Lincoln’s Birthday should mark the opening of their campaign, and it was agreed that Villard should be invited to join the group. Miss Ovington knew Villard and had written articles for the Evening Post. Walling had already enlisted the support of his friend, Charles Edward Russell, a popular magazine writer and fellow-Socialist whose father had been editor of an abolitionist newspaper in Iowa. Almost immediately, on the initiative of Miss Ovington, the group was made biracial with the addition of two prominent colored clergymen, Bishop Alexander Walters and the Reverend W. H. Brooks.

Villard accepted the invitation with enthusiasm. Here was the opportunity to carry out his idea of a defense committee. He plunged into rewriting the rough draft of the call for a conference and he asked his uncle, William Lloyd Garrison, of Boston, to endorse it, assuring him there was “nothing in it that a Garrison should hesitate to sign.”

In spite of Villard’s strenuous efforts to obtain publicity for his manifesto, he was disappointed by the reaction of the New York press. Nevertheless, the group continued to expand. Among those who attended early meetings to plan for a “Conference on the Status of the Negro” were John Haynes Holmes, William H. Bulkley, Alexander Irving, Anna Garlin Spencer, J. C. Phelps-Stokes, Helen Stokes, Stephen S. Wise and Ray Stannard Baker.

The conference was held at the end of May, 1909. Discussions and lectures centered on the rights of the Negro to political equality (without which he could not raise his economic or social status); methods for obtaining civil and political rights through organization, and scientific evidence refuting the prevailing popular theory of Negro racial inferiority.

The direction of the conference was largely in Villard’s hands. In his speech to the open meeting, he elaborated on his idea of an endowed committee, and at the closed business session at the end of the conference he presented a practical outline of his plan for departments of legal advice, social investigation, publicity, political propaganda and education. The resolutions passed by the meeting to give publicity to its purposes were to have been drafted in advance by Walling, but were actually rewritten and completed by Villard while the preamble was being read to the assembly. The most important resolution called for a Committee of Forty to set up a permanent organization and to arrange for another convention in 1910, Again it was Villard who had drawn up the list of names to fill this committee. The nominating committee, however, made drastic changes in an attempt to avoid aligning the Committee of Forty with either radicals or conservatives, omitting the names of Washington and his supporters as well as those of Washington’s severest critics.

Disagreement on the floor of the meeting over the resolutions and the nominations was due partly to deep mistrust by the colored people of the motives of the whites and partly to factional strife among themselves. The suspicion and hostility reached such proportions that at one point Villard and Walling seriously considered withdrawing the whole plan and continuing the work as they saw fit.

Villard had personally invited Washington to attend the conference, but after making it clear that the new movement would be aggressive in its fight for Negro rights, he tactfully made it possible for the Negro leader to decline the invitation. Washington acknowledged the need for the projected organization, but pointed out that because his own work was in the South, he must as far as possible keep himself free of criticism. Such was his influence on loyal Negroes and on prominent whites in sympathy with his point of view that they avoided the conference when he failed to give it public approval.

By autumn of 1909, the Committee of Forty had begun to plan the next annual meeting in New York.

Villard became temporary chairman in November, succeeding Walling, who had resigned. Little headway was made during the fall and winter. Meetings were poorly attended; some prominent members resigned because of Washington’s disapproval; funds were lacking and a suitable treasurer could not be found; no speakers were secured for the conference; and Villard’s plan of organization had not been implemented. The only definite step was the hiring of a professional worker. Returning from a vacation at the end of February, 1910, Villard realized that his project was near disintegration. Within ten days he launched a series of special meetings, set up a Preliminary Committee on Permanent Organization with himself as chairman, settled the main outline of the conference with “Disfranchisement” as its theme, and secured contributions to ease the financial situation. Villard himself donated the organizer’s salary for several months and provided office space in the Evening Post building.

The report of the preliminary committee was accepted by the business meeting of the conference, which opened in New York on May 12, 1910. The permanent organization consisted of a national Committee of One Hundred whose function was to raise funds and lend prestige to the parent body. Moorfield Storey of Boston, constitutional lawyer and anti-imperialist, was named national president. An Executive Committee was chosen with Walling again as chairman, John E. Milholland, treasurer, and Villard, disbursing treasurer. The organization was officially named The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

At an executive session of the newly formed NAACP, held on the last day of the conference, it was decided to concentrate efforts on an aggressive campaign of publicity and investigation, with Du Bois as National Secretary and Chairman of the Executive Committee. Because of the protest of Miss Blascoer, who was directing the organizational work, Villard secured a further change which led to Du Bois becoming Director of Publicity and Research instead.

The engaging of Du Bois marked the culmination of a tug of war that had been going on during the first year between conservatives and radicals within the organization. Now there was no longer any attempt to balance the two factions. With the enthusiastic support of Villard, Du Bois proceeded at once to publish The Crisis. Its growth was phenomenal, for through its pages the fiery editor gave leadership and inspiration to the colored people of the country.

Even before the conference, Villard had taken Washington to task in an Evening Post editorial, aligning himself with Du Bois and the radicals. In effect, he served notice that the new organization would take a forthright stand in opposition to the compromising policies and program of Washington.

In the meantime, the organization took root outside of New York City. As early as October, 1909, the nucleus of a branch had appeared in Boston, where Villard and his uncles arranged a Garrison memorial meeting to bring together those who were interested. Out of this celebration grew the Boston Committee to Advance the Cause of the Negro which, in 1911, became a branch of the NAACP. Mass meetings in Chicago, Cleveland and Buffalo during the autumn of 1910 served to spread the movement.

By the end of 1910, it was apparent that the Constitution League, which had been doing the NAACP’s legal work, was not meeting the association’s needs. The league failed to make headway with the Pink Franklin case, and Villard assumed control. This was a peonage case involving an illiterate farm hand, Pink Franklin, who had unintentionally killed a sheriff sent to arrest him for an alleged violation of an agricultural contract. Villard appealed to Booker T. Washington for aid and Washington suggested a program of action which the association carried out. This, in addition to President Taft’s intercession on the prisoner’s behalf-secured by Villard through Charles Dyer Norton, Assistant Treasurer of the United States, who had married into the Garrison family — led to the commutation of Franklin’s sentence. As a result of this success and the failure of the Constitution League, the association adopted Villard’s recommendation that a legal-redress department be established. Villard’s Committee on Program was assigned the problem of organizing this department and formulating a plan of action.

Villard was also given the responsibility of carrying out the incorporation of the association, which was accomplished on June 19, 1911; and he became the first Chairman of the board, a position he held until 1914. Thus did he bring to fruition his plans for a committee which would aggressively champion the wrongs of the Negro race. That he was able to realize his dream was evidence of his ability as an organizer, his power of, persuasion and the influence of his social and business position. The magic of the Garrison name won him respect and confidence in the Negro world shared by few white men. His dominating personality, however, made him intolerant of anyone who questioned his command. Within a few years of the founding of the association, when his authority as board chairman was challenged by Du Bois in the operation of The Crisis, Villard withdrew almost completely from the work. When he retired from active leadership, however, the “new abolition movement” was well under way. The association had expanded to twenty-four branches, and three thousand members. It was, in the words of Du Bois, “out of debt, aggressive, and full of faith.”

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