NAACP Memphis Branch History

History of the NAACP

Very few initials are as well known in America as NAACP. They stand for the “National Association for the Advancement of Colored People” which traces it’s beginning to 1909 in New York City. The NAACP came into being during a period which historian Rayford Logan has described as the 'nadir', or the low point of the African-American experience in this country.

'Black codes' were in force in the South to legally separate the races in virtually every aspect of life. In other areas of the country, very much the same circumstances prevailed through custom. Blacks were limited to the most menial jobs, the worst housing, the most atrocious medical care, and the shabbiest education, wherever they lived. Lynchings were common, and officially sanctioned mistreatment of blacks, a common occurrence.

In 1908, a vicious race riot occurred in Springfield, IL, the former home of President Abraham Lincoln. Scores of blacks were killed and thousands driven from the city. Appalled, Mary White Ovington, a white social worker, organized a handful of people-William Walling, a writer; Dr. Henry Moskowitz, also a social worker; and Oswald Garrison Villard, editor of the New York Evening Post-who conceived a CALL for a national conference on what was described as 'the Negro question.'

Some 60 black and white leaders signed the CALL, issued on President Lincoln’s birthday, February 12, 1909. Its last paragraph said:

'We call upon all believers in democracy to join in a national conference for the discussion of present evils, the voicing of protests, and the renewal of the struggle for civil and political liberty.'

Out of the conference came a permanent group, the NAACP. The first officers were Moorfield Storey, national president; Mr. Walling, chairman of the executive committee; John E. Milholand, treasurer; Mr. Willard, disbursing treasurer; Francis Blascoer, executive secretary; Dr. W.E.B. DuBois, director of publicity and research.

The NAACP has a rich and varied history that has been woven by the hands of many men, women and children with a common goal of improving conditions for people of color. To give a detailed account of our accomplishments would require reams of paper. However, you can read a very insightful article by a woman who is known as “the first member of the NAACP” and assisted greatly in spearheading our creation. Click here to read “How the NAACP Began” by Mary White Ovington. You can also view a few of the NAACP’s proud moments and accomplishments here.

Memphis Branch History

NAACP Field Secretary, James Weldon Johnson came to Memphis to investigate the lynching of Ell Persons. Upon his arrival, he met with his friend Robert R. Church, Jr. and a charter for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was developed. The establishment of the NAACP charter in Memphis marked only the fourth branch in the South. The first NAACP chapter in Tennessee was established in Memphis in 1917. By 1919 the Memphis NAACP became the largest branch in the South. Robert Church, Jr. was named the first member elected to the NAACP’s National Board of Directors from the South. He helped to establish 68 branches in 14 states and represented over 9,000 members in the South. The Ell Persons lynching and the establishment of the Memphis NAACP changed the political and social structure of the South.

From 1977 to 1993 Benjamin J. Hooks of Memphis was the NAACP's executive director. During these years, the Legal Defense Fund invoked the provisions of the Voting Right Act of 1965 to dismantle remaining informal barriers to African American political participation such as the at-large elections for city councils that diluted the votes of racial minorities. Between 1969 and 1990 these efforts helped to increase the number of African American elected officials from 1,200 to 7,000. Under Hooks' period of leadership, however, it became apparent that increased civil rights and legal protections had not been matched with sufficient improvement in the socioeconomic position of African Americans. The changed political climate of the 1980s and 1990s also included less support for civil rights programs. Despite this, the NAACP supported major civil rights legislation successfully.

The NAACP's determination to create a better future continues to express the spirit of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, W. E. B. Du Bois, Ben Hooks, and the thousands of prominent and unnoticed Tennesseans who have supported it.