Ralph Bunche Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Bunche played a major role in making Americans conscious of the contradictions between their racial policies and their democratic aspirations. He helped bring better understanding between nations, participating in the drafting of the United Nations Charter, and through diplomatic negotiations helped to maintain peace in the Middle East and Africa, winning the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.

Early Life

Ralph Johnson Bunche was born in Detroit, Michigan, on August 7, 1904. His father, Fred Bunche, was a barber. His mother, Olive Agnes Johnson Bunche, named him for his grandfather, Ralph Johnson, who was born a slave. The family moved frequently during Ralph’s early life, and he remembered that in each community a different ethnic group was singled out for contempt: the Italians in Detroit; the blacks in Knoxville, Tennessee, where he spent a winter when he was six; the Mexicans in New Mexico, where the family moved because of his mother’s poor health; and the Chinese and the Japanese in California, where he and his younger sister, Grace, lived with their grandmother after their mother’s death. These early memories of the different faces of prejudice clearly influenced his later interests and outlook on life.

In the fall of 1916, Bunche’s father left home, never to be heard from again. The following February, his mother, who suffered from rheumatic fever, died. His maternal grandmother, Lucy Johnson, kept the family together, but within a few months, his favorite uncle, who suffered from tuberculosis, committed suicide. In less than a year, Bunche had lost three of the most significant adults in his life. His grandmother, widowed early in life, had reared her children alone and now became his anchor. A light-skinned woman who could have passed for white, she was a dominant influence in her family. Her husband, Ralph’s grandfather, had been a schoolteacher, and education was a value she continued to uphold for her grandchildren.

Even as a child, Bunche was accustomed to hard work. By the age of seven he was selling newspapers, and before his mother died he worked in a bakery after school until nearly midnight every day. In Los Angeles, where he went to live with his grandmother, he was graduated as valedictorian from Jefferson High School. He attended the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) on an athletic scholarship, where he was also a teaching assistant in the political science department, and was graduated magna cum laude in 1927. He received an M.A. degree from Harvard in 1928 and in June, 1930, married Ruth Ethel Harris, one of his students, with whom he had three children: two daughters, Jean and Jane, and a son, Ralph.

A handsome man of medium height and build, Bunche was destined to attract favorable attention for his accomplishments and pleasing personality. On a Rosenwald field fellowship, he toured Europe, England, and North and West Africa in 1931-1932 and in 1934 received a Ph.D. from Harvard, winning the Tappen Prize for the best doctoral dissertation in the social sciences for that year. His dissertation was a study of colonial administration in French West Africa; the transition of the former African colonies to independent statehood was one of his abiding concerns through the remainder of his life. His Harvard years were followed by postdoctoral work in anthropology and colonial policy at Northwestern University, the London School of Economics, and the University of Capetown, South Africa, in 1936-1937. A Social Science Research Council postdoctoral fellowship allowed him to visit Europe, South and East Africa, Malaya, and the Netherlands East Indies between 1936 and 1938.

During these years, Bunche was also teaching. He began teaching political science at Howard University in 1928 and served as chairman of the department from 1929 to 1950, when he left Howard to teach government at Harvard. He codirected the Institute of Race Relations at Swarthmore in 1936 while on leave from Howard. By his early thirties, his brilliance, hard work, and breadth of interests made him one of the most highly educated, well-informed men in the United States.

Life’s Work

In 1939, Bunche became a member of the staff of the Carnegie Corporation Survey of the Negro in America. This project was headed by a Swedish economist, Gunnar Myrdal, and resulted in a two-volume work, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (1944). Bunche was one of a half dozen staff men who helped Myrdal with this massive project, based primarily on hundreds of interviews and personal observations of the participating scholars. He toured the South by automobile in 1939 with Myrdal, and most of the interviews were conducted by his assistants in 1939 and 1940.

Bunche’s part of the study dealt mainly with black organizational life, leadership, and ideology. He emphasized the extent to which disfranchisement of black voters had corrupted politics in the South, cutting off reform possibilities at the grass roots. He castigated the use of the poll tax and the white primary and pointed out the lack of secrecy in voting, which made political independence unlikely for poor people of either race in the South. Bunche emphasized the glaring inconsistencies between democracy and discrimination,...

(The entire section is 2187 words.)