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New York University Press
Ralph Bunche: Model Negro or American Other? / Edition 1

Ralph Bunche: Model Negro or American Other? / Edition 1

by Charles P. Henry, Sir Francis Darwin
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Activist, international statesman, reluctant black leader, scholar, icon, father and husband, Ralph Bunche is one of the most complicated and fascinating figures in the history of twentieth- century America. Bunche played a central role in shaping international relations from the 1940s through the 1960s, first as chief of the Africa section of the Office of Strategic Services and then as part of the State Department group working to establish the United Nations. After moving to the U.N. as Director of Trusteeship, he became the first black Nobel Laureate in 1950 and was subsequently named Undersecretary of the U.N.
For nearly a decade, he was the most celebrated contemporary African American both domestically and abroad. Today he is virtually forgotten.
Charles Henry's penetrating biography counters this historical tragedy, recapturing the essence of Bunche’s service to America and the world. Moreover, Henry ably demonstrates how Bunche's rise and fall as a public symbol tells us as much about America as it does about Bunche. His iconic status, like that of other prominent, mainstream black figures like Colin Powell, required a constant struggle over the relative importance of his racial identity and his national identity. Henry's biography shines as both the recovered story of a classic American, and as a case study in the racial politics of public service.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780814735831
Publisher: New York University Press
Publication date: 02/01/2005
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 299
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Charles Henry is Professor of African American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author/editor of five books and numerous articles. He is also a former Chair of Amnesty International USA and has worked in the U.S. State Department.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


    Blacks had been living in Detroit from the time it was a small frontier town, but it was the tightening of Southern Black Codes in the 1830s and 1840s that led to the first substantial migration of Blacks to this Michigan city. Most of these migrants were free Negroes from the Virginia cities of Richmond, Fredericksburg, and Petersburg. Mostly mechanics and tradesmen, they were roughly equal in social and economic status and quickly united to work for the removal of the second-class citizenship placed upon Michigan's Blacks. Symbols of this inferior citizenship included disfranchisement, exclusion from juries, exclusion from militia service, prohibition of intermarriage between Blacks and Whites, and an 1827 act designed to exclude fugitive slaves as well as the Negro migrants who could not post a $500 bond guaranteeing good behavior.

    Despite such laws, the Black population in Detroit grew from 193 in 1840 to 587 in 1850. During the post-Civil War period, Detroit's small Black professional class, which numbered fewer than 100, or 2 to 5 percent of those working, was extremely concerned about White public opinion. For example, none of Detroit's leading Black citizens would participate in the 1871 commemoration of the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution lest their doing so offend White citizens. A few years later, a Black meeting approved a resolution recommending the discontinuance of celebrating "all days that are only celebrated by them [Blacks], as the tendency is to perpetuate caste feeling, and that in the future, they recognize only the national daysof the country." For similar reasons, Detroit's Black elite rejected the formation of separate professional societies and business leagues until after World War I. Thus, long before the birth of Ralph Bunche, Detroit's Black elite was denying the existence of an American "other."

    By 1900, the old Detroit that had been a commercial city dominated by Yankee peddlers who sold New York custom goods and supplied the vast Midwest had disappeared. In its place rose an industrial city of freight-car shops, stove works, and related metal crafts, including marine engineering. All of the elements were present to supply an industry that would reshape the country.

    Nationally, there were eleven thousand cars, more than one million bicycles, and seventeen million horses providing transportation. But events unfolding in Detroit and elsewhere would mark the end of the horse and bicycle as modes of common transportation. In 1900, there were seventy-two American firms manufacturing cars. Thirty-eight were added in 1901; forty-seven in 1902; and fifty-three in 1903, the year of Ralph's birth, but they took a backseat to events in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, where two bicycle mechanics named Wright who had benefited from improvements in the internal combustion engine took flight. Within a very few years, then, the base of the modern American industrial economy had been laid, with Detroit playing a leading role.

    The revolutionary changes in industry had an equally dramatic effect on demographics. In 1900, the population of Detroit was 285,000; in 1910, 465,766; and in 1925, well over 1,200,000. The new jobs in auto factories and their suppliers served as a powerful magnet drawing immigrants from abroad. The foreign-born population grew from roughly one-third of Detroit's population in 1904 to one-half by 1925. Leading the list were Poles, followed by Russians, Italians and Hungarians. Because of the dominance of a single heavy industry with semiskilled job requirements, Detroit was much more a working-class city than were other rapidly expanding urban centers like Los Angeles. The industrialization of Detroit and the influx of foreign workers had several important consequences. One was the early suburbanization of the area; many of the wealthiest families moved to places like Grosse Pointe. Another consequence was a business-led effort to "Americanize Detroit." Members of the Board of Commerce working with the Board of Education opened night schools where foreigners could learn English and also adopt acceptable and respectable middle-class attitudes and habits.

    The composition and character of Detroit's Black community was as radically affected by the changing economy as the White community. However, the changes were well under way before the explosion in the Black population during World War I. As with many Northern urban centers at the turn of the century, the small Black elite dependent on upper-class Whites for jobs and status was disappearing in Detroit. Many trades Blacks had once dominated, such as barbering, were passing into the hands of immigrants. Replacing such tradespeople was a more Black-oriented, business-minded elite bound to the Black community by external discrimination. Yet unlike the new elites in other Northern cities, Detroit's new Black leaders followed the old caste in identifying with the native-born White groups and rejecting the ethnocentrism of the immigrant groups. They stressed the individualism and self-help of the American middle class rather than the cooperation and communalism of the tightly knit immigrant groups. Thus, while immigrant groups and the growing industrial order were changing the American way of life, Black Detroiters remained rooted in the old Washingtonian notions of optimism and accommodation. Blacks shared deeply in the American dream of individualism, hard work, and success, yet the gap between Black and White prosperity grew wider.

    Ralph Bunch was born at 434 Anthon Street in Detroit on August 7, 1903. His twenty-one-year-old mother, Olive, had no job but was supported by an extended family that was headed by her mother, Lucy Johnson. Ralph's father, Fred, was a barber who worked in downtown Detroit. Fred was from Zanesville, Ohio, and had been raised by elderly foster parents in Mechanicsburg, Ohio, since the age of seven. At seventeen, he left home to join the circus, and it was while traveling with the circus that he met Olive in Michigan City, Indiana, in 1900. Handsome, jealous of his wife, and restless, Fred was something of an outsider to the Johnson family.

    The Johnson family traced its roots back to Ralph's great-grandfather James H. Johnson, a Baptist preacher and freedman from Virginia. In the mid-1830s he married Eleanor Madden in Missouri. Eleanor's mother had been a house slave and her father a White plantation owner. The Johnsons purchased a two-hundred-acre farm near Alton, Illinois, in 1842. There they raised five daughters and six sons. The farm remained in the family.

    The Johnson children, including Ralph's grandfather, Thomas Nelson Johnson, had the advantage of attending school. After helping on the farm, he was able to attend Shurtleff College in Alton. As one of the few Black college students in the area, he organized literacy classes for former slaves and taught night school. At a night school in the Salem Baptist Church, he met and eventually married his student Lucy A. Taylor. Lucy had been born in Sedalia, Missouri, in 1855 to a house slave, Emmaline, and an Irish landowner. Moving to Alton at the end of the Civil War, Lucy worked as a maid. After waiting until Thomas graduated in 1875, Lucy and Thomas married.

    The couple moved to Fort Scott, Kansas, where Thomas taught in a small school for Black children. Lucy bore ten children in fifteen years; only five lived into adulthood, including Ralph's mother, Olive, who was born in 1882. Three years later, the family moved to Waco, Texas, where Thomas was principal of a school for Black children and edited a weekly paper, the Texas Baptist Star. In 1890, at the young age of forty, Thomas died of malaria and the fortunes of the family changed.

    With five children and no money, Lucy sold her husband's possessions for train fare back to the Johnson farm in Alton. After two years, Lucy moved her family to Michigan City, Indiana, and purchased a house with the proceeds from her husband's share of the Alton farm. Working at a variety of jobs, including chambermaid in the Vreeland Hotel, Lucy reared Ethel, Olive, Tom, Charlie, and Nelle. Olive met Fred Bunche at a local baseball match, and they were married in 1900 when the Johnsons moved to Detroit in search of better jobs and schools.

    The Johnson family was not part of Detroits' Black elite but did present an interesting mix of occupations and statuses. Tom and Charlie, the chief sources of income, worked at the Diamond Match Company. (Skilled and semiskilled jobs accounted for roughly 20 percent of the positions held by Black males in the Detroit economy of 1900.) Later they worked in service jobs at the Tullar Hotel in downtown Detroit, where Fred Bunche worked as a barber. These service jobs made up roughly half of all positions held by Black males in the city. For Black females, service jobs, which included domestic labor, comprised more than 80 percent of all female-held jobs in 1900. Thus, the Johnson/Bunche family held neither the best nor the worst jobs in the Black community. Moreover, their family history and the home they owned gave them middle-class aspirations even if they sometimes lacked middle-class means.

    Reading Ralph's recollections of his boyhood it is difficult to get a sense of any Black community or any discrimination:

I didn't know anything about prejudice against the Negro, had no experience with anti-Negro prejudice in Detroit between 1904 and 1914. There were mixed YMCAs in Detroit at that time. The prejudice in Detroit, and there was prejudice in Detroit, in those years was not against Negroes at all, because there weren't many Negroes then. The Negro migrations occurred during and after the first WorldWar. The prejudice in Detroit in my youth was against the Italians, against the southern Europeans, and against the Italians especially, who were coming in at that time as immigrant populations competing with the indiginous [sic] workers.

Bunche goes on to say that ironically he shared that prejudice against the Italians, as well as the accompanying stereotypes.

    What are we to make of Ralph Bunche's assertion that there was no discrimination against Negroes in Detroit? He admits that he sometimes could not visit his father at work in a barber shop "because Negro barbers could and did work in barbershops which were for white clients only." The Detroit YMCA was openly segregationist, although it found a few openings for the Black elite on its board. Bunche often declared that they lived next to Whites in Detroit. It is true that semiskilled and unskilled immigrant workers frequently lived next to Negro families, but there were also areas of high Black concentration. In fact, the last residence of the Johnson/Bunche family on Macomb Street had one of the highest and oldest concentrations of Negro residences in the city.

    Ralph's tendency to stress the integrated nature of his childhood reflects the old Black elite's optimism about race relations. Moreover, his acceptance of native White prejudices against Italian immigrants reveals the family's drive to be accepted as part of the "American Middle Class." This positive outlook is again seen in Ralph's recollection of his childhood experiences.

    The entire Johnson/Bunche family attended a Black Baptist church where his aunts and uncles all sang in the choir. Many years later, while attending a performance of Carmen at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Ralph would recall what a central role music had played in the life of the family:

Tom especially stood out in my memory--a rich baritone voice, mellow and with good volume. I could see him standing beside the old upright piano .... My recollections of the family scenes around the old piano bring the family warmly to life. Ethel, always dramatic, lively, laughing and blushing, fast-talking in her distinctly contralto tones. Nelle, the soprano and perfectionist--deadly serious about her singing and very proud of her ability to hit above high C; Charlie, the tenor and a good one, but an even better drummer. Mama was the accompanist, but I'm not sure she could read a note.

In fact, the family's musical ability led them to form the Johnson Quartet. The quartet's singing in various locations in the Detroit area received good reviews, and a sketch performed in Sandwich, Ontario, even included a part for young Ralph.

    Baseball and "shinny"--street hockey with tin cans and sticks--competed with music for young Ralph's attention. He sold newspapers at Navin Field and rooted for the Tigers, especially Sam Crawford, Hughey Jennings, and Ty Cobb.

    Bunche described himself as a shy and reticent youngster with a skinny build. He must have become less reticent, for he was disciplined in the fifth grade for being a chatterbox. Bunche attended Barstow Grammar School in Detroit, where, according to him, he was a student with average intelligence.

    Although the Johnson/Bunche family attended church regularly and Ralph was a member of the Sunday school at 2nd Baptist Church, the church and traditional religion had little influence on his life. As he explained in 1927 when he visited Detroit and was reluctantly baptized, "the Baptism didn't take hold."

    The pleasant days of picnics on Belle Island, circuses, ball games, and family musicals seemed to disappear when Fred Bunche moved his wife and son to Cleveland, Ohio, around 1907. Fred had been something of an outsider living with the Johnsons, but his new independence did not improve the situation of his family. Little is known of the period spent in Cleveland because the Bunches soon moved on to Knoxville, Tennessee.

    As Ralph remembered Knoxville, the family spent only one winter there:

I have only two memories of this community. One, that there were great banks of red clay and apparently it was in this red clay that the fine yams, large sweet potatoes, grew, I remember that. And the only other recollection I have of Knoxville is that there was a park not far from the house in which we lived. And soon after we moved there I wandered into this park one day and was promptly ordered out by the guard of the park because the park was not open to Negroes of any age, not even those of six or seven. That stuck in my mind. When I hear Knoxville, Tennessee mentioned I think of this park and this experience.

This first experience with "Jim Crow" segregation was used by Bunche to demonstrate the power of racism to dominate all other recollections of a community.

    From Knoxville the family moved to Toledo, Ohio, where Ralph's sister, Grace, was born in 1909. Fred had no better luck finding work in Toledo, and it was while the family was living in a single, cold room that Olive came down with tuberculosis. When Olive's sister Ethel found the Bunches in such dire conditions on a visit to Toledo, she insisted they move back to Detroit. Grandmother Lucy Johnson, called Nana by the family, cared for the children while Olive was confined to a sanitarium for two years. Fred Bunche visited the family frequently, but there was no room for him in the house the Johnsons now occupied.

    When Olive's brother Charlie came down with tuberculosis, his and Olive's sister Ethel decided he could best recover in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He left in May 1914, and was followed three months later by Olive, whose condition had deteriorated. Lucy and Olive and Fred's children--Ralph and Grace--moved to Albuquerque in October 1915, to be followed later by Fred, who, in order to get there, was forced to "ride the rails." After a year of concerts in the Midwest, 0live's brother Tom moved to Kansas City and sister Nelle moved to Corsicana, Texas.

    Albuquerque's history was vastly different from that of Detroit. Founded in 1706 by Don Francisco Cuervo y Valdes, the twenty-eighth governor and captain-general of New Mexico, the site in the Rio Grande Valley had been inhabited for centuries by Indians. The villa grew steadily during the 1700s, serving as an important military post for first the Spanish and then the Mexicans. Upon its military occupation in 1846, it became an important United States military outpost. During and after the Civil War the town was host to repeated conflict between Union and Confederate forces and sympathizers. With the coming of the Santa Fe Railroad in 1881, a new town began to grow rapidly two miles east of old Albuquerque. Between 1890 and 1915, the Albuquerque area went from a settlement of four thousand to a city of nearly twenty thousand. It served primarily as a health resort for those suffering from asthma and tuberculosis.

     Despite the ill health of Olive and Charlie, Ralph's recollection of the time spent in Albuquerque was mostly pleasant. Because of his mother's rheumatic condition, he would place her on a trolley headed toward the Sunday afternoon band concerts in Old Town, then race the trolley to the park on foot to save the nickel car fare. With his grandmother firmly in charge of the household and his father only an occasional visitor, Ralph was free on many days to swim in irrigation ditches and roam the mesa hunting with his Uncle Charlie.

    There were few Negroes in Albuquerque in 1915. Ralph recalls that most of the discrimination was directed toward Spanish Americans, Indians, and Mexicans; however, Blacks were not exempt. Soon after their arrival, Olive took Ralph to a nickelodeon. As Ralph recalls:

We took a seat in the middle of the theater on the aisle, and soon after we sat there an usher came and tapped my mother on the shoulder and told her that we should move to the rear seat. My mother knew what he meant but she had no intention of moving and did not move and she told him very politely, and she took him aback some, that she appreciated his courtesy and his consideration, but really, these seats were quite perfect for us and she intended to sit right there, but she thanked him for being so kind, and she did not move, nor did he pursue the matter any further, but I remember this very well.

This quiet, diplomatic way of dealing with problems must have made an impression on young Ralph.

    The public schools of Albuquerque, unlike the movie theaters, did not discriminate. Ralph made many friends among his Indian and Mexican classmates. Of his having been one of two Black students in a group of thirty-six, he later said, "There was no differentiation, no outsiders." Yet perhaps the major influence in Albuquerque was not his classmates but, rather, his teacher. Emma Belle Sweet, a young, White woman, who taught him English and geography in the sixth grade at the Fourth Ward School was the first person to open up the world beyond Albuquerque to his young mind. Although she sometimes had to discipline the talkative boy with a rap on the knuckles or by directing him to stand in the corner, Ralph never forgot the inspiration she supplied. At a ceremony honoring her with the Gold Key Award of the American Association of School Administrators in 1962, Bunche said:

From elementary to graduate grades, I learned with readiest facility not necessarily from the teacher who may have demonstrated greatest mastery of his material but very definitely from the teacher who made [me] feel that he knew me and was concerned about me and who gave me encouragement by recognizing achievement and stimulating my pride and zeal.

Ralph was to need all the love and support he could get during his days in Albuquerque.

    After school, Ralph earned money by working, stripped to the waist, in a bakery. He was to say in later years that he was self-supporting from the age of fourteen. Working hard was to be a lifelong characteristic.

    Despite the warm, clear climate, a cloud hung over the family residence at 621 North Street as Olive's and Charlie's health continued to decline. Olive seemed to take a turn for the worse when Fred left Albuquerque to look for regular work in 1916. By February 1917, Olive was dead. Years later Ralph would remember with regret that on the night she died, "she had asked for milk and there was none in the house because I had drunk it up."

    Three months later, Uncle Charlie, despondent over his health, his sister's death, and his inability to provide a house for his own mother, put a shotgun to his head and pulled the trigger. Within the space of a year, thirteen-year-old Ralph had lost his mother, his favorite uncle, and contact with his father. Responding to the crisis, Tom and Nelle moved quickly to Albuquerque, but Nana decided the family should head further west.

    When W. E. B. Du Bois toured Southern California on behalf of the NAACP in the spring of 1913, he waxed eloquent about the possibilities for African Americans: "Los Angeles is wonderful. Nowhere in the United States is the Negro so well and beautifully housed, nor the average efficiency and intelligence in the colored population so high." Du Bois concluded that "[o]ut here in this matchless Southern California there would seem to be no limit to your opportunities, your possibilities." White Angelenos apparently agreed with Du Bois's assessment. An entire section of the Los Angeles Times for February 12, 1909, was devoted to the Negro. An article entitled "The Emancipated" by John Steven McGroarty states:

However it be that the black man has fared or is faring in other parts of the country and the world, his voice in this Lincoln Day issue of the Times is not tremulous with defeat or querulous with despair. Instead it is the voice of people who have traveled far and well with the vibrant march of progress; and who look out on life with level gaze from victories won.

Perhaps the confidence of Black Angelenos was rooted in the city's past.

    Twenty-six "Negroes and mulattoes" had joined two Whites and sixteen Indians in founding Los Angeles in 1781. Blacks soon lost their majority and did not represent a significant percentage of the population until the land boom of 1887 brought more than one thousand Black immigrants to the city. Within a decade the number of Los Angeles Negroes had doubled to more than two thousand, but the Black percentage of the total population actually declined from 2.5 percent in 1890 to 2.08 percent in 1900.

    Although Blacks resided in scattered parts of the city, a small Black business district had developed at Second and San Pedro Streets by 1894. After the turn of the century, small Black businesses began appearing along Central Avenue. Other Blacks were doing personal service work, selling real estate, and farming. Los Angeles grew 211.5 percent between 1900 and 1910 and another 80.7 percent the following decade. The decade of 1910 to 1920 welcomed 7,890 new Black Angelenos. However, Asian newcomers totaled 7,938 during the same period, and Mexican immigrants, who were classified as "Whites," numbered 9,027. In fact, the threat of more imported Chinese labor in 1917 led to a major campaign by the Black-oriented Los Angeles Forum. The organization wrote to the State Labor Council of Defense that Black workers, many of whom had been attracted to Los Angeles by the 1917 labor shortage, were perfectly capable of meeting the existing farm-labor needs. Yet it was not farm or industrial jobs that employed Los Angeles Blacks. More than half the Black labor force worked in domestic and personal service. The second leading source of employment, with only 20 percent of the total, was the manufacturing and mechanical industries.

    When the Johnson family arrived in Los Angeles at the height of Black migration in 1917, race relations were changing. Los Angeles was becoming more a working-class city and less a health resort. By the 1920s there were five Black areas in the city: the Boyle Heights area, the West Side neighborhood on Jefferson Street between Normandie and Western Avenues, the Temple Street area, the Furlong Tract, and the Central Avenue community.

    Tom, Nana's remaining son, who was light-skinned like her, had preceded the family and rented a small house on Griffith Avenue on the east side. When the White owner saw Ralph and Aunt Nelle and realized the family was Black, he changed the locks on the door before the moving van arrived. Not deterred, on moving day Tom broke down the door and the family stayed for the full period for which the rent had been paid. The Johnsons then bought a house on East 37th Street. When some of the neighbors complained, Nana pointed out that they were only renting, and that the Johnsons owned their home.

    With Fred Bunche gone and Olive dead, Nana was in full charge of Ralph and Grace's upbringing. In later years, Ralph would often cite this tiny women as the major influence in his life. In a 1954 "Person to Person" interview with Edward Murrow he listed some of the guiding principles she laid down:

   * no false pride, be humble but never lose self-respect and dignity;

   * never pick a fight but never run from one if you are sure you're right;

* be honest always, live by your conscience, you can never be happy otherwise;

* the United States is a democracy and you can surmount barriers of race.

To a remarkable extent, Bunche embodied these principles throughout his life.

    Lucy Johnson was so pale in appearance she could have passed for White, as did her twin brother, Frank. However, she was quite proud of her African American heritage, and when combined with her appearance, this pride led to a number of amusing incidents. On one occasion a door-to-door salesman attempted to sell her a family plot in a cemetery. He assured her that they would not have to be worried about being buried next to Blacks because his company "never sold burial plots to niggers." Lucy asked the salesman to repeat himself and then excused herself and went to the kitchen. She came back at full charge with a broom in her hand and chased him out of the house shouting, "I am a Negro and proud of it!!!!"

    Ralph, too, had his share of racial incidents. He recalled one early experience in Los Angeles:

I was a newsboy, had a paper route in the morning. The paper took us all on an outing down to the beach. Went on all of the rides, had quite a good time. And then in the middle of the afternoon they took us to the bath house and there the good time of myself and the other Negro newsboy ended, because we were not admitted to the bath house and I remember very vividly having to sit out and wait for a couple of hours until the other boys had done their swimming and had come out. We had to wait because we had no other means of transportation home. The humiliation of it, the resentment at the injustice of it.

Bunche felt that discrimination against "the oriental" and the Japanese was even more intense at that time.

    Although Bunche would always assert that his lifelong struggle against racial bigotry had left him with no feelings of bitterness or hate toward Whites, his childhood friend, Charlie Matthews, had a different recollection: "I recall on one occasion while Ralph was working at the City Dye Works and was required to lay carpets in the SS City of Los Angeles (it may have been the SS City of Honolulu, I'm not sure which) Ralph worked hard in order to make the deadline before sailing time and when he finished, stood out on the pier and wished 'that the damned boat would sink in the middle of the ocean. 'The ship set sail and never did arrive in Honolulu; it burned and sank in the middle of the ocean."

    The house in which the Johnsons settled on 37th Street (now 40th Place) and Central Avenue was in a White middle-class neighborhood in 1919. Ralph attended the Thirtieth Street Intermediate School (now John Adams Junior High School) and later Jefferson High School, which was only a half block away. Both schools were predominately White, and Ralph recalled that there was little discrimination, although he remembered being locked in a cloakroom during the last month of school so that his deportment record would be satisfactory. Ralph did not remember any overt discrimination, but Lucy discovered that most Black students were tracked in vocational classes on the assumption that they would not be going to college. She immediately confronted the principal and insisted that Ralph be placed in classes that would prepare him for college.

    Ralph's interest in school grew with the more challenging classes. Nana instilled in him the confidence to compete, especially against Whites. She told him to "let them, especially white folks, know that you can do anything they can do." This self-confidence must have been perceived in various ways. Ralph, for example, states that he was "a chip on the shoulder type of person in high school." Yet a former teacher, Dr. Cecilia Irvine, provided a quite different portrait in a 1959 letter to Bunche:

I would like to picture you the boy you were. You were distinctly a thoroughbred who walked with a springy step, always you seemed completely at ease with the world and always looked up. I think, more than anything, I remember you with your head held high. I remember your grandmother. I met her just once. She was dressed in black with a Queen Mary black hat, and I have never forgotten the emanation of power from that tiny figure.

Of course, at the time Dr. Irvine wrote her letter, Bunche was internationally known, which may have influenced her memory.

What emerged from Ralph's early educational experience was a talkative, energetic student only mildly interested in schoolwork who was disciplined on more than one occasion. If young Ralph had been permitted to remain in vocational classes, he more than likely would have pursued a skilled trade at best. With his grandmother's guidance, he became an outstanding student at Jefferson High School.

    At Jefferson, Ralph was exposed to classic authors like Shakespeare and Dickens and often listed them as favorites when asked in later life. A class in civics stimulated his interest in law, which led him to major in political science when he entered college. Si Tipton, his basketball coach, taught Bunche how to relax when the pressure was on, and Ralph had many opportunities to apply it during his diplomatic career.

    Everyone seemed to like Ralph at Jefferson High and he did excellent work in his courses. Despite his record of accomplishment, Ralph was excluded from the Ephebian Society, the citywide student honor society. Even though some of his teachers protested, the injustice was not corrected until 1955, when he was given honorary membership. At the time, Ralph was so hurt he contemplated leaving school. Only the memory of his mother's admonition, "Ralph, don't let anything take away your hope and faith and dreams" persuaded him to stay and graduate.

    Graduation provided a lesson in racial invisibility rather than visibility. Chosen to give the valedictory address, Ralph was congratulated by the school principal, as was his grandmother. In one version of the story, Bunche relates the events as follows:

The principal was a very fine man. I'm citing these things merely to show that oftentimes these things happen by people of real good will, because the principal of Thomas Jefferson High School from which I graduated in Los Angeles, was a fine man but he had never done much thinking on the racial question. He had never given much attention to it obviously. And so on the evening of my graduation he came to me and said he was sorry I was leaving, congratulated me on graduating, and then said this, "You know, we've never thought of you as a Negro." Well, I knew that this was wrong. At this time I didn't know how to answer him, but fortunately my grandmother, my maternal grandmother, was at my side and she knew what to say. She was a little woman but a woman of great character and spirit. And in a very quiet way she explained firmly to the principal of Thomas Jefferson High School what it meant for a person to have pride in his origin, that we had no shame of being Negroes, that we were Americans like everyone else, that we had pride in our origin, and therefore it was insulting even if he did not mean it that way, for him to say what he said. And he understood and was very polite, as I recall, he unwound an apology which took about five minutes.

There are other versions of this story in which Ralph's grandmother is not so quiet and polite in her response. However, the event was a symbolic one in Bunche's life. He would spend the rest of his days denying that his pioneering accomplishments somehow set him apart from or were not representative of his race. For the rest of his life, White Americans could not seem to accept him fully unless he transcended his racial roots, which he steadfastly refused to do. Instead, he chose to define American in a way that included his race and all others.

Table of Contents

1 19037
2 Reverse Migration20
3 The New Deal's "BlackYard"32
4 The Black Intellectual48
5 The New Africa65
6 An African American Dilemma89
7 From the Outside--In120
8 Pioneer Peacekeeper142
9 The Model Negro156
10 Loyalities: Family, Profession, Race, and Nation168
11 The Cold War and the Congo182
12 The Cultural Politics of Civil Rights212
13 Black Power and "Blackism"229
About the Author299

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Herbert Hill

A rich and moving account of the complex life of one of the most influential black figures in twentieth-century America. (Herbert Hill, Evjue-Bascom Professor of African-American Studies, University of Wisconsin)

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“Thoughtful, provocative . . . a first-rate study.”
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“Not the least of this book's many virtues is the way in which . . . it bridges the gap between the concern's of Du Bois's day and those of the civil rights era.”

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“A rich and moving account of the complex life of one of the most influential black figures in twentieth-century America.”
-Herbert Hill,Evjue-Bascom Professor of African-American Studies, University of Wisconsin

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