Also known as: Ralph J(ohnson) Bunche, Ralph Johnson Bunche, Ralph Bunche
Statesman, Diplomat, Scholar, Government Official
To see the world not as it is but as it should be, to accept people with all their foibles, and to embrace goodness characterizes the vision of Ralph Johnson Bunche, the first African American Nobel laureate. He was sometimes slandered by his own — called an "Uncle Tom" by militant blacks — and also attacked by conservative whites who, according to Contemporary Black Biography, called him "a UN mercenary, a man with an undistinguished mind and rather bad personal manner." Nevertheless, he became the highest ranking black American in the United Nations.
Bunche traces his mother's family history back to slavery. His great-grandfather, James H. Johnson, was a Baptist preacher from Virginia who married Eleanor Madden, the daughter of a house slave and an Irish Catholic planter. James and Eleanor had 11 children: six sons and five daughters. Thomas Nelson Johnson, their youngest son, was Ralph Bunche's grandfather, a teacher who graduated from Shurtleff College in Alton in 1875. One of his students was Lucy A. Taylor from Sedalia, Missouri, born March 10, 1855. The daughter of a house slave and an Irish planter, she married Thomas Nelson Johnson on September 8, 1875.
Lucy and Thomas Johnson's second child, Olive, was Ralph Bunche's mother. She was born in Kansas on April 3, 1882. In 1890 Thomas suffered an attack of malaria which killed him, and Lucy Johnson, with no job and five children, sold everything in order to have enough money to return to Alton, Illinois. In 1900 Lucy Johnson moved her family from Alton to Detroit into a white house with green shutters and a large front porch. This is the house where Ralph Bunche was born.
Olive Johnson met and married Fred Bunche, a trained barber whose family background remains something of a mystery. Fred and Olive Johnson lived with Olive's family described as large, warm, and talented with which he was ill at ease. In 1907 he moved the family to Cleveland, Ohio, then to Knoxville, Tennessee, then back to Toledo, Ohio. Ralph Bunche's sister, Grace, was born in Toledo in 1909. Fred Bunche was not a good provider. When Grace was born, Olive Johnson's sister visited her and found them in a one-room flat, Fred had no work and Olive was sick. Ethel Johnson brought them back to Detroit where Olive was diagnosed with tuberculosis and sent to a sanitarium where she spent two years recovering.
Bunche was born on August 7, 1903, at 434 Anthony Street in Detroit, Michigan. Confusion over his actual birth date resulted when his birth certificate was lost, and his aunt used the incorrect date registered in the family Bible. The best times of Bunche's childhood are recorded in a letter Bunche wrote in late 1959 to William T. Nobel of the Detroit News and cited in Brian Urguhart's work, Ralph Bunche. He recalled that he enjoyed:
hitching my sled in winter onto the tailgates of horsedrawn beer trucks; swimming on Belle Isle in the summer and in the river down by the icehouse; ... the thrill of the circus parade, and particularly the calliope at the end of it, when Barnum and Bailey came to town and the still bigger thrill of slipping into the big tent under the canvas sides; rooting for the Tigers and especially Ty Cobb; hawking newspapers on the street and how we yelled; and the excitement when "extras" came out as they frequently did then and never do now.
The Johnson family left Detroit in 1914. Charlie Johnson, who also suffered from tuberculosis, was sent to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to recover and Olive followed him. Lucy Johnson, Bunche's grandmother, brought Bunche to Albuquerque in October of 1915 on the train. Fred Bunche, without money or job, followed them by riding box cars.
In New Mexico, Bunche went on hunting trips with his uncle Charlie. The family lived in an adobe house at 621 North Street. In school Bunche was smart, but often got into trouble for talking in class. He was one of only two blacks in his class but recalled with pleasure his teacher, Emma Belle Sweet.
In October of 1916, Fred Bunche, who had not lived with his children and wife since Ohio, left Albuquerque to look for regular work. He promised to send for his family when he found work and could support them. In February Olive's health was complicated by a rheumatic condition; she died in February of 1917. Three months later Uncle Charlie committed suicide. Bunche was 13 years old. The child suffered greatly at the loss of his mother and agonized over a terrible but unnecessary guilt. According to Urquhart, as late as 1967 Bunche wrote, "I can never get out of my mind that on the night of her death in Albuquerque she had asked for milk and there was none in the house because I had drunk it up."
Bunche's father did not return for him and his sister after Olive's death. Nor did Fred Bunche die as some sources report, but he remarried. In 1928 he contacted Ralph Bunche's Aunt Ethel in Los Angeles in an effort to talk to Grace, Ralph's sister, but Bunche never saw his father again. As an adult Bunche contacted his father's second wife, Helen, in an attempt to locate his father, but she did not know his whereabouts.
Lucy Johnson took Ralph and his sister and moved to Los Angeles where they settled in a house on 37th Street and Central Avenue. In 1918 the neighborhood was white and middle class. In the 1920s it began a rapid decline and today is part of the notorious South Central, in the Slauson and Watts Area of Los Angeles. Bunche enrolled at Jefferson High School just half a block from his new home.
Lucy Johnson, called Nana by Bunche, set a simple but high standard for the children to follow. Although she could have passed for white, she did not and taught her family a fierce pride in race. Recalling his grandmother's teachings, Bunche, as quoted by Urquhart, said:
In and out of school, I have always been motivated by a spirit of completion, particularly when pitted against white people. I suppose this was an inevitable response to Nannie's constant adamantine to let them, especially white folks know that you can do anything they can do.
Bunche graduated from Jefferson High School in 1922. The school principal, Mr. Fulton, made the mistake of saying to Bunche and his grandmother that they never had thought of Ralph as a "Negro." Lucy Johnson's reply epitomized for her grandson the dignity and self respect she expected him to demand for himself. According to Urquhart, she told Fulton:
You are very wrong to say that. It is an insult to Ralph, to me, to his parents and his whole race. Why haven't you thought of him as a Negro? He is a Negro and he is proud of it. So am I. What makes you think that only white is good?
In high school Bunche had played basketball and also worked as a paperboy for the Los Angeles Times. He was the valedictorian of his class and delivered the graduation address entitled "Our New Responsibility."
According to Bunche, he never would have attended college had it not been for Lucy Johnson's insistence. Bunche had worked all summer laying carpet and knew that his family needed the money he had earned. At summer's end, however, Lucy Johnson made him quit his job to attend college. Bunche enrolled in the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) on Vermont Avenue, now the site of Los Angeles City College. Speaking at the dedication of Ralph Bunche Hall at UCLA on May 23, 1969, Bunch said that UCLA "was when it all began ... where in a sense, I began; college for me was the genesis and the catalyst." At UCLA Bunche became an all–around scholar and athlete. He wrote for the Daily Bruin, the campus newspaper, became president of the debating society, and was a star basketball player and played football until he injured his leg.
Bunche graduated summa cum laude from UCLA in 1927 with a B.A. degree in political science and a Phi Beta Kappa Key. Again he was class valedictorian and delivered a commencement address. His speech attacked excessive materialism, urged international mindedness and promoted the importance of being a socially valuable man. Bunche would become such a man.
A tuition fellowship enabled Bunche to enroll at Harvard University and earn a Master of Arts degree in June of 1928. While at Harvard, Bunche supported himself by working in John Phillips's secondhand bookstore in Harvard Square for ten dollars a week. Robert Weaver, who became U.S. secretary of the interior and later chief of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and William H. Hastie, who became U.S. Federal Appeals Court judge, were classmates and friends of Bunche. Bunche was offered the Thayer Fellowship to continue his study for a Ph.D. at Harvard but he declined. Percy L. Julian, a Howard University professor, had recruited Bunche to come to Howard in Washington, D.C., and organize a political science department.
Bunche came to Howard under the presidency of Mordecai Wyatt Johnson, the first African American to head the historically black university. This was an exciting time at Howard, and Bunche benefited from such colleagues as poet and critic Sterling P. Brown, philosopher and culture critic Alaine Locke, and sociologist E. Franklin Frazier. Bunche also chafed under the blatant racism and segregation in the nation's capital and felt inhibited by Mordecai Johnson's iron rule of the university.
In the fall of 1929, Bunche took a leave from Howard and started course work for his doctorate at Harvard. While he was in graduate school at Harvard, Bunche became addicted to cigarettes. His highly competitive nature had added more stress than he could handle.
On June 23, 1930, Bunche married a young woman he had met at Howard University in 1928. Ruth Ethel Harris was a teacher in Washington, D.C. She attended night classes at Howard and had taken Bunche's course in political science. Ruth was born in 1906 in Montgomery, Alabama. She graduated from Alabama State Normal school. Their marriage, which produced three children two daughters and a son, would last 41 years. Joan Harris Bunche was born in 1931, Jane Johnson Bunche in May of 1933, and Ralph J. Bunche Jr. in 1943.
Bunche completed his dissertation in February of 1934. His thesis on decolonization in Africa won the Toppan Prize for the year's best dissertation. He was awarded the Ph.D. degree in government and international relations. Two years later he published his first book, World View of Race. The book examines colonial policy throughout the world and the status of non-European people in South Africa. Bunche took courses in anthropology at Northwestern University in Chicago to prepare for his research abroad. He also studied at the London School of Economics and at the University of Cape Town.
Bunche returned to Howard University after 20 months abroad. In 1938 he began working with Gunnar Myrdal, a Swedish social scientist commissioned by the Carnegie Corporation to study African Americans. This study became An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, published in 1944. Bunche was one of Myrdal's six top staff members and the one closet to Myrdal. Bunche wrote four monographs for this study; the last monograph consisted of 19 chapters. It was published in 1973 as The Political Status of the Negro in the Age of FDR.
Conducting field work in the South — mainly North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia — Bunche was away from home more than he or his wife and family wanted. In 1941 when the children were eight and ten years old, Bunche had a few months of extended time with them. During that time, the family moved into a house at 1510 Jackson Street NE in Washington D.C. As Bunche achieved more acclaim, however, there was a terrible price to pay. His wife's poignant letter summarized the price of success. In 1945 she wrote:
I know you think you are the Miracle Negro with the Whites, but I am sure you are just a novelty and whom they can get two men's work out of one from you, though it may be killing you and hurting your family. ... Achievement is a grand thing and I am very proud of yours but we shouldn't let it blind us to the values of life. ... I must realize that as you grow more important you will be away from us the best part of our lives and I'll always have the responsibility of rearing the three children alone.
Both partners valued the sanctity of marriage, and for them separation or divorce was inconceivable.
Bunche was rejected for military service in World War II because of an injury he had received playing football at UCLA. An injury to his left leg resulted in a permanent blood clot that would cause him increasing difficulty as he grew older. He was also deaf in his left ear as the result of a punctured eardrum. He, therefore, served his country by joining the National Defense Program Office of Information as senior analyst. He was soon advanced to chief of the African section and worked at the U.S. State Department where he became a participant in the first conferences leading to the formation of the United Nations. Bunche wrote the charter for handling the colonies of defeated countries.
As the first African American to serve on the U.S. delegation to the first General Assembly of the United Nations, by 1946 Bunche was well placed for his next promotion. In 1947 United Nations Secretary General Trygve Lie appointed him director of the Trusteeship Department. From this position he became Undersecretary General of the United Nations. He was now the highest U.S. official black or white at the United Nations. He became the highly respected and valued assistant of three U.N. heads: Trygve Lie, Dag Hammarskjold, and U Thant.
The United Nations was the perfect place for Bunche to fulfill his calling. All his years of preparation and experience stood him in good stead for his diplomatic challenges. That preparation and his clearly articulated "biases" proved to be a winning combination. Bunche once revealed what he called his biases to a writer for Ebony (1972). As quoted in Contemporary Black Biography, Bunche said:
I have a deepseated bias against hate and intolerance. ... I have a bias against racial and religious bigotry. I have a bias against war, a bias for peace. I have a bias which leads me to believe in the essential goodness of my fellow man, which leads me to believe that no problem in human relations is ever insoluble. And I have a strong bias in favor of the United Nations and its ability to maintain a peaceful world.
Bunche accompanied United Nations appointed mediator Folke Bernadotte of Sweden to the Middle East to attempt a peaceful resolution of the Arab–Israeli conflict in 1948. The Arabs and Israelis were on the verge of war as a result of the establishment of a Jewish state. This was a perilous assignment as the conflict involved not only land issues but religious differences. Near the end of the year, Bernadotte was assassinated by an Israeli terrorist. The task of making peace thus fell to Bunche. He gained the confidence of both sides through his fairness and objectivity. In 1949 Bunche successfully negotiated a truce, an armistice, and the end of that particular conflict.
Bunche was eating in the U.N. Delegates' Dining Room on September 22, 1950, when his secretary informed him that he had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Though honored, Bunche felt that he should not receive an award for a job he was paid to do. Bunche drafted a letter stating that "peacemaking at the United Nations was not done for prizes." But Trygve Lie was of a different opinion. He insisted that the letter not be sent. Bunche was the first black person in the history of the Nobel awards to receive the prize.
Bunche exhibited a single-minded commitment to keeping peace. In 1956 Bunche's efforts during the Suez crisis in Egypt were responsible for the creation of the 6,000 man U.N. Emergency Forces, which supervised the Egypt Israeli border for 11 years. The 1960 assignment to keep peace in the former Belgian Congo (Zaire) was in Bunche's opinion his most difficult. He did succeed, however, after two months of intense work in enabling Zaire's survival. Zaire's treacherous transition from colonialism to independence, however, resulted in two tragic deaths. On February 13, 1956, Patrice Lumumba's death was announced. Many African Americans were outraged and one even blamed Bunche. Describing the demonstration at the United Nations, Urquhart noted that one black man carried a placard saying, "Kill Bunche." Bunche was saddened by Lumumba's death. He was equally grieved when on Monday, September 18, he learned that Dag Hammarskjold had been killed in the crash of a United Nations DC6 in route to Leopoldville. Bunche nominated Hammarskjold for the Nobel Peace Prize. On September 22 Bunche wrote: "Mr. Hammarskjold has given new meaning and dimension to dedication and effective contribution to the cause of peace through brilliant statesmanship great wisdom and rare courage." The prize was awarded to Dag Hammarskjold on October 23.
Bunche's troubles with his fellow African Americans would not end with the Congo crisis. America was facing its own revolution in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and Bunche was called upon to choose sides. Some black militants called Bunche an "Uncle Tom." Bunche quickly reminded the newcomers to the civil rights struggle that he had carried his first picket for civil rights in 1937. He also demonstrated with Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington and participated in the march from Selma to Montgomery.
For his work in the areas of race, international relations, and peace, in 1949 Bunche was awarded the NAACP's Spingarn Medal. In addition to the Nobel Prize, Bunche received the Theodore Roosevelt Association Medal of Honor, 1954; the Presidential Medal of Honor, 1963; the U.S. Medal of Freedom, 1963; and in 1991 he was inducted into the African American Hall of Fame.
Bunche's role in and contribution to international affairs and public life is unimpeachable, but it came at great cost and personal sacrifice. The most traumatic event of his adult life occurred October 9, 1966, following a game at Shea Stadium; when Bunche and his wife arrived home after 2:00 a.m., a police officer notified them of their daughter Jane's death. The 33-year-old mother of three had committed suicide. The old guilt originating with the loss of his mother and abandonment by his father did not make his grief any easier to bear, and it may have increased the rapid decline in his physical condition. An insulin-dependent diabetic, Bunche suffered from phlebitis and failing eyesight.
In 1967 Bunche tried to resign from his post at the United Nations. However, the pressure from U Thant and from President Lyndon B. Johnson to stay was overwhelming. In the end Bunche gave in and remained on the job. Ralph Bunche remained undersecretary general until the fall of 1971. He was relieved of his duties then because of his health. On December 9, 1971, he died in New York Hospital at 12:40 a.m. His funeral took place in New York's Riverside Church at noon on Saturday, December 11. People all over the world mourned his passing. He is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.
Peace Form On, a great steel monolith was erected in 1980 in a park on First Avenue across the street from the United Nations. This memorial was created by Daniel Johnson, a young African American sculptor whose father had known Bunche in Los Angeles. The park was renamed Ralph Bunche Park. Perhaps the most meaningful memorial to Bunche took place in 1992 when Anthony Perry, a former gang member in Los Angeles, visited the University of Southern California library and researched the Rhodes Armistice of 1949 that Bunche had drafted. On the basis of that document, Perry negotiated a truce between the Bloods and the Crips, two of the largest and most violent Los Angeles street gangs. A lasting peace among young AfricanAmerican men would surly serve as a fitting tribute to one who gave his life in the struggle for peace.
Ralph Bunche's papers are housed at the University of California, Los Angeles, and in the United Nations archives in New York. Some personal papers are also available at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City.