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Ella Baker Papers

Collection Data

The Ella Baker papers provide a snapshot of Baker's life as an activist and visionary for a variety of progressive organizations in the United States, from the 1930s through the 1980s. Documented here are the organizations and individuals that were central to Baker's network such as George Schulyer, The Young Women's Christian Association, In Friendship, A. Phillip Randolph, and Bayard Rustin. The collection, however, does not document her personal life nor does it fully capture her philosophy or political ideas.
Baker, Ella, 1903-1986 (Creator)
Grant, Joanne (Compiler)
Schuyler, George S. (George Samuel), 1895-1977 (Contributor)
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (Contributor)
Southern Christian Leadership Conference (Contributor)
Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (U.S.) (Contributor)
Young Negroes' Co-operative League (Contributor)
Dates / Origin
Date Created: 1926 - 1986
Library locations
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Division
Shelf locator: Sc MG 630
African American women civil rights workers
African Americans -- Civil rights -- History -- 20th century
Civil rights movements -- United States -- History -- 20th century
Civil rights workers -- United States
Southern States -- Race relations
United States -- Race relations
Cooperative League of the U.S.A.
Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party
Biographical/historical: Ella Baker was a behind-the-scene strategist in many of the American progressive movements of the 20th century. Baker's career as an activist, leader (a title she would never have used to identify herself) and grassroots community organizer spanned from the late 1920s to the time of her death in 1986. The projects, organizations and movements she worked for, directed, initiated, or supported included the consumer education movement via the conduit of the Young Negroes' Co-operative League (YNCL) during the Great Depression era of the 1930s; the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the 1940s; the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in the 1950s and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s; along with some fifty other entities. Ella Josephine Baker was born in Norfolk, Virginia on December 13, 1903, the second of three children of Georgianna Ross, a school teacher, health care worker and mid-wife and Blake Baker a waiter on the ferry line between Norfolk and Washington. When she was eight years old, her family moved to Littleton, North Carolina where her mother grew up and her maternal relatives continued to live. At age 15, Baker became a high school student at Shaw University's boarding school and later went to the University she was valedictorian for both of her graduating classes. Following graduation in 1927 she moved to Harlem, which remained her home until her death on December 13, 1986. In 1937 Baker married T. J. Robinson after a 10-year courtship which began at Shaw while they were both students there. Soon after her arrival in Harlem, at the end of the Harlem Renaissance and just before the Wall Street crash of 1929 and the Great Depression, Baker became the mentee of George Schuyler, a black journalist and black intellectual. Schuyler was a pioneer of an early response in the black community to the Great Depression that promoted the organization of the economic resources of the community into consumer co-operatives (bulk buying clubs). He founded the Young Negro Cooperative League (YNCL) which aimed to organize and promote co-operatives, as well as educate the community about the economic advantages of co-operatives. He also ran a national black news bureau for which Baker was a contributing writer. Additionally, from 1929-1931, she worked as a staff editor for two black newspapers in New York City. In 1931, Schuyler selected Baker to be the executive director of the Young Negroes' Co-operative League. He encouraged her to use consumer education a platform to organize the poor in Harlem. In the mid-1930s she would again use his advice when she was the National Director of the YNCL. At its inception in 1931, the YNCL, with the commitment of twenty-five men and women throughout the United States, set out to enact a five year plan that was destined to emancipate blacks economically by 1936. The organization promoted consumer co-operatives as the most effective mechanism to bring about "a revolution of black economic and political power". With economic emancipation as the primary task, the YNCL was comprehensive in its vision, developing educational, mutual defense, medical, and political programs. The effectiveness of Baker's work at led to a scholarship from the Cooperative League of America to attend the Brookwood Labor College in July 1931. There, her studies focused on consumer economics and consumer education. This was the first scholarship awarded to a black person by the League. Baker joined the staff of the New York Public Library Adult Education Program at the 135th Street Branch in 1934. During her time there she developed consumer education and literacy programs for young mothers. The classes were held in the St. Nicholas Avenue Park and the Young Women's Christian Association on West 137 Street. In 1936, Baker was hired by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) as a consumer education instructor. She worked with this project until the WPA folded in 1941, by which time she had been promoted to the position of supervising educator for projects relating to consumer education. From 1937-1940, Baker worked for the National Association of Consumers as a fund-raiser and was the education and publicity officer for the Harlem's Own Co-operative. The positions she held and many promotions she received in a brief span of time, are indications that Baker built a reputation of being an effective consumer and co-operative educator and a talented organizer. In 1938 while working for the WPA Baker was advised by Schuyler to apply to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for the position of youth director, however she did not get the job. Two years later she was asked to reapply for the same position by Rev. James Robinson, the out-going youth director. Again the position was awarded to someone else, although, this time the selection committee informed Baker that they considered her the appropriate candidate for the position of assistant field secretary. Baker accepted the position on a six-month trial basis in February 1941 and remained employed with the NAACP until 1946. In 1943 she was appointed, without her knowledge, to the position of director of Branches. During her tenure at the NAACP, Baker encouraged local leadership and grassroots initiative, and worked to change the culture and image of the organization, to one that appealed to all classes. In 1946 Baker accepted the offer to lead the fund-raising campaign of the New York Urban League. After resigning from the position of Director of Branches, she continued to work with and organize for the NAACP in various capacities, including the New York branch, where served as the chairperson of education committee. Baker resigned as President of the New York Branch of the NAACP in 1953 to run for the New York City Council on the Liberal Party ticket. She lost to her opponent, Earl Brown, who held both the Democratic and Republican parties' nomination. After her defeat Baker returned to the New York Branch of the NAACP as chair of a special committee. The period between 1946 to 1957, following Baker's resignation from the NAACP, was one of personal loss for Baker. Her sister died of cancer in 1947 and in response to the loss Baker joined the staff of the New York Cancer Society in the education and out-reach office. Her marriage also ended during this period. As the civil rights movement began to heat up following the Brown vs Board of Education case, Baker, civil rights activist Bayard Rustin; labor leader A. Phillip Randolph and attorney Stanley Levison along with a host of religious and labor groups, formed the organization, In Friendship. This coalition aimed to rally financial support around the struggle for desegregation of Southern schools, to support victims of "segregationist vigilantes", the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott and voter rights in the South. In Friendship held fund raising events in Madison Square Garden in 1956 to help pay for the Mississippi Improvement Association's legal fees and to purchase new vehicles for the car pool during the Montgomery Bus boycott. Remaining closely connected to the people she had met when she lived and traveled throughout the South as field secretary for the NAACP, Baker was well informed of the ongoing grassroots organizing and emerging struggles taking place there. It was this knowledge that led her to conceive the idea that the black Church in the South needed to provide organizational structure to the desegregation movement. The idea was well received and supported and led to the A series of consultations in formulation of nonviolent civil rights action strategies and the formation of Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). SCLC was officially launched with a two-day meeting on January 10 and 11, 1957 in Atlanta, Georgia. Baker moved back to Atlanta in 1958, having accepted the position of executive secretary of SCLC with the responsibility of organizing the general operations, developing administrative and managerial procedures for the office. She considered this her most significant undertaking since resigning from the NAACP and worked with intense focus and vision to create a work environment that supported the mission of the organization and placing it on the national radar as a nonviolent, civil rights, leadership organization. Her main project while at SCLC was the 'Crusade for Citizenship' campaign which focused on educating blacks about voter rights and voter registration. This was one of SCLC's initial projects, which aimed to mobilize blacks in the South to vote, however due to competition from other voter registration projects at the NAACP, the Crusade had limited success. Reflecting during her later years on her tenure at SCLC, Baker was of the opinion that her vision for SCLC was never fully realized due primarily to internal resistance from both the members and the leadership of the organization. In the closing months of her work with SCLC the student sit-ins throughout the South exploded onto the national scene. Baker, the visionary, understood that the youth would be the cutting edge of the new freedom movement, however their activities would have to be strategic and organized. Within three months of the initial student desegregation sit-in, Baker convinced SCLC to take the lead and sponsor a meeting for the youth leaders in the South. With funds from SCLC she organized a conference at Shaw University for the students to layout their own plan action. This conference held during April 1960 provided the first opportunity for the independent and isolated sit-in actions to be coalesced and structured. SCLC as well as Council of Racial Equality (CORE) and the NAACP appealed to the students to join their ranks. In October of 1960, after a series of gatherings the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was launched. Though Baker never held an official position with SNCC, as one of its founders she remained the political adviser, role model, fund-raiser, intellectual and political mentor and she remained the activist mentor of the organization throughout its existence. After leaving SCLC in 1960, Baker took a position in the southern regional student office of the Young Women's Christian Association. From this vantage-point she proved to be an invaluable financial resource to the veterans of the student movement when they returned to the classroom. For eleven years, 1963-1974, Baker remained actives in various organizations. In 1963 she served as a consultant to the Southern Conference Educational Fund, from this position she was able to direct financial support to the workers of SNCC. In 1964 she was head of the Washington, D. C. and Atlantic City, NJ offices of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. Baker then became a consultant to the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church. A board member of the Puerto Rican Solidarity Committee, Baker gave a major speech for the at Madison Square Garden in New York City, in 1974. Ella Baker never officially retired from public life. In her later years she stayed closer to home in Harlem and continued to give speeches. In her lifetime former members of SNCC honored Baker. Among them was Joanne Grant, who produced the documentary film "Fundi, " 1981 and later wrote the first biography of Baker. Bibliography: Joanne Grant. Ella Baker: Freedom Bound, (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1998) Barbara Ransby. Ella Baker and the Black freedom movement: a radical democratic vision. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003)
Content: Photographs transferred to Photographs and Prints Division
Physical Description
Extent: 5.5 linear ft. (14 boxes)
Type of Resource
NYPL catalog ID (B-number): b16022773
MSS Unit ID: 20899
Universal Unique Identifier (UUID): 92cf9170-a385-0134-efa3-00505686d14e
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