Johnson Bunche, American political scientist, renowned scholar, award winner,
and diplomat, was one of the most prominent African Americans of his era. Bunche was born on August 7, 1903 or 1904
(there is some disagreement about the year of his birth) in Detroit, Michigan. His father Fred was a barber
who owned a racially segregated barbershop
that catered solely to white customers. His mother, whose maiden name was Olive
Agnes Johnson, was an amateur musician.
Young Ralph spent his early years in Michigan. However, due to the relatively
poor physical constitution of his mother and grandmother’s uncle, Charlie Johnson, the
family settled in Albuquerque, New
Mexico when he was ten years old. The family believed the dry climate of the
region would be more conducive to his parents’ health. Yet both his mother and
uncle died when Ralph turned twelve. His mother died of tuberculosis in 1917.
His uncle committed suicide the same year. The circumstances surrounding his
father are less fully known. The common narrative is that he left the family,
remarried, and never returned.
Ralph and his two sisters were resettled in Los Angeles, California where they joined their
grandmother who raised them in a South Central neighborhood that was then predominantly
white. It was during his teenage years in Los Angeles where Bunche proved to be
a brilliant student. He excelled in all of his high school courses and
graduated valedictorian of his high school class at Jefferson High School. He then
attended the University of California
at Los Angeles (UCLA) where he graduated summa cum laude in 1927.
Bunche continued his graduate studies at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts where in 1934 he
became the first African American to earn a doctorate degree in Political
Science from an American university. His dissertation comparing French Rule in
Togoland and Dahomey received the Toppan Prize for outstanding research. While
he was earning his doctorate degree, Bunche became a professor in the political
science department at Howard University in Washington, D.C.
In 1942 Bunche began work as a senior social analyst in the Office of Strategic
Services, which was the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). In 1943 he joined the U.S. State Department. Toward
the end of World War II he participated in the initial planning for the United
Nations which was established in 1945. He was also a key figure in the creation
and adoption of the UN Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. By that time Bunche was also establishing a
record as a mediator in the already-violent Arab–Israeli conflict. It was that
work which led to his being awarded the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize in Olso, Norway. Bunche was the first African American to be
awarded the Prize.
Bunche’s passion for social and racial justice made him a strong supporter of
the Civil Rights Movement in the
1960s. He was active in the movement and participated in both the March on Washington in 1963 and the Selma march in 1965.
He and his wife, the former Ruth Harris (one of his students at Howard),
married in June 1930 and had three children:
Joan, Jane, and Ralph, Jr. Jane, the middle child and youngest of the
two daughters, committed suicide in 1966.
Throughout his groundbreaking career, Bunche remained on the Howard University
faculty. He eventually chaired the department of Political Science at Howard
for more than two decades where he taught generations of students. Afterwards,
he taught at Harvard University from 1950 to 1952 and served on its Board of
Overseers from 1960 to 1965. He also served
as a trustee of Oberlin College, Lincoln University, and the New Lincoln School
in New York City, New York.
By the late 1960s, Bunche’s health began to decline and he eventually resigned
from his post at the United Nations. He died on December 9, 1971. He was
survived by his wife and son and is buried in the Woodlawn Cemetery in New York