The following is an excerpt from Barbara Ransby’s Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision. A gifted grassroots organizer, Baker shunned the spotlight in favor of vital behind-the-scenes work that helped power the black freedom struggle. She was a national officer and key figure in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, one of the founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and a prime mover in the creation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Baker made a place for herself in predominantly male political circles that included W. E. B. Du Bois, Thurgood Marshall, and Martin Luther King Jr., all the while maintaining relationships with a vibrant group of women, students, and activists both black and white.
In this deeply researched biography, Barbara Ransby chronicles Baker’s long and rich political career as an organizer, an intellectual, and a teacher, from her early experiences in depression-era Harlem to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
Ransby’s Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement was featured on our Rosa Parks Day recommended reading list.
NORFOLK, VIRGINIA, AND LITTLETON, NORTH CAROLINA, 1903–1918
I was young when I became active in things and I became active in things largely because my mother was very active in the field of religion.
Ella Baker, 1979
Black Baptist women encouraged an aggressive womanhood that felt personal responsibility to labor, no less than men, for the salvation of the world.
Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, 1993
In the early 1980s Paula Giddings, the writer and historian, went to Ella Baker’s modest Harlem apartment to interview the legendary activist for a book Giddings was writing on African American women’s history. At that meeting Giddings had hoped to learn more about the half century of history Ella Baker had witnessed and helped shape: her role in the Works Progress Administration and the cooperative movement in Harlem during the 1930s; her dangerous organizing work for the NAACP in the South during the 1940s; her collaboration with and criticisms of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1950s; and her pivotal role in the founding of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s. A few minutes into the visit, Giddings realized that the exchange she had hoped for was not to be. Instead of responding to Giddings’s questions about the past, Baker kept asking her a single question: “Now, who are your people?” Giddings regretfully concluded that, after all the battles Ella Baker had fought and won over the course of her fifty-year political career, she was losing the fight with Alzheimer’s and was no longer able to provide the information and insights she sought. To Giddings, it seemed as if Baker were groping for a cognitive anchor in the conversation. Yet Baker’s desire to know and place her visitor was characteristic of what had been important to her throughout her life. The question “Now, who are your people?” symbolizes Baker’s approach to life-history as well. Who one’s people were was important to Ella Baker, not to establish an elite pedigree, but to locate an individual as a part of a family, a community, a region, a culture, and a historical period. Baker recognized that none of us are self-made men or women; rather, we forge our identities within kinship networks, local communities, and organizations.
Ella Baker’s family, her childhood experiences in Norfolk, Virginia, and Littleton, North Carolina, and her secondary and college education at Shaw University in Raleigh and her transformative political encounters in Harlem during the Great Depression all contributed to her evolving identity as a woman, an activist, and an intellectual, and set the stage for the years of political activism that would follow.
So, who were Ella Baker’s people? She was born on December 13, 1903, in Norfolk, Virginia, and grew up from the age of seven in the small town of Littleton, North Carolina. Ella Jo was the middle of three surviving children; she had an older brother, Blake Curtis, and a younger sister, Maggie. Her parents, Georgianna (Anna) Ross Baker and Blake Baker, raised their children to be upstanding members of the rural community where they themselves had grown up. Her maternal grandparents, Mitchell and Josephine Elizabeth Ross, owned their own farm, and her grandfather was a noted Baptist clergyman. Her paternal grandparents, Teema and Margaret Baker, were landless tenant farmers. Both sets of grandparents had grown up under slavery, and their differing educational and economic positions reflected both the obstacles that faced freedmen and freedwomen and the achievements of black families in the rural South after Reconstruction. Baker’s parents attended secondary school and sought to better their position, moving to the city of Norfolk in search of opportunity and then returning to Littleton in search of security. Blake’s job as a waiter on a Norfolk steamer line required him to travel, while Anna presided at home and played a prominent role in the Baptist church.
During her childhood in Littleton, Ella Baker was nurtured, educated, and challenged by a community of strong, hard-working, deeply religious black people—most of them women—who celebrated their accomplishments and recognized their class advantage, but who also pledged themselves to serve and uplift those less fortunate. Anna Ross Baker was the single most influential force in Ella’s early life. Ella described her mother as a stern and pious woman who believed in discipline almost as much as she believed in God: “My mother was a . . . very positive and sort of aggressive woman.” Ella grew up in a female-centered household, surrounded by a community of Christian women actively engaged in uplifting their families and communities. These women were as much concerned with enlightening the mind as they were with saving the soul. At a statewide convention of Baptist women, the local group to which Anna belonged urged members to “do all in our power to foster education.” Trained as a teacher herself, Anna instructed all three of her own children in grammar, writing, and speech before they entered school.
Barbara Ransby is professor of African American studies and history and director of the Gender and Women’s Studies Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago.