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 Dr.Ralph Bunche

Looking Back in history


  Ralph Bunche rose from a humble neighborhood on the lower eastside of Detroit to the dizzying heights of international diplomacy at a time when black Americans in many areas of the United States were forced to sit in the backs of buses. In a career filled with diplomatic triumphs, he is perhaps best remembered for almost single-handedly negotiating peace between Israel and Egypt in 1949, which brought him the Nobel Peace Prize the following year, making him the first Black (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. the second)and the youngest to have received this award.

He was born Ralph Johnson Bunch (The "e" was not added to the family name until 1917) on Aug. 7, 1904 in a small frame house in Detroit to Fred Bunch, an itinerant barber, and Olive Agnes Bunch, a musician. Baptized at the Second Baptist Church in Greektown, he spent his early years selling Detroit newspapers to supplement the family income.

  (There is some dispute about his date of birth. Current records list him as having been born in 1904, but his school records have his birthdate as 1903. Family members say his original birth certificate had become lost and when a new one was issued in 1940 his Aunt Ethel recorded his birthdate erroneously as 1904.)

  By the time he was 10 years old the family was living in Toledo, Ohio. After the birth of his sister Grace, his mother developed rheumatic fever and the family moved west to Albuquerque, N.M., in hopes the dryer weather would provide a cure. But her heatlh continued to fail and Olive Agnes died in 1916 , followed only three months later by her husband, Fred.

  Now orphans, Ralph and Grace moved in with their maternal grandmother, Agnes Johnson, in Los Angeles, Cal. Mrs. Johnson was a tiny woman of indomitable character and the chief influence in Ralph's early life. Bunche later described his grandmother as "the strongest woman I ever knew, even though she stood less than five feet high."

  As a teenager at Jefferson High School in Los Angeles, Bunche held such jobs as carrying type at the Los Angeles Times, and as a houseboy for silent film star Charles Ray. He was an honor student, a debater and played on the football, basketball and baseball teams. After his graduation as class valedictorian in 1922, Bunche entered the University of California at Los Angeles on a partial athletic scholarship.

  He majored in international relations and in 1927 he graduated summa cum laude with a Phi Beta Kappa key and was awarded a fellowship by Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

  But Harvard was a long way off, and the family had little extra cash for living expenses. His problems were solved by two strokes of good fortune. First, a black women's organization stepped in and held a benefit which raised $1,000 toward his expenses at Harvard. Next, a myopic Harvard bookseller, who didn't realize Bunche was black, offered him a part time job.

  For months Bunche ran the bookshop to the increasing satisfaction of its dim-eyed owner. One day the owner called Bunche into his offce. "Folks tell me you're a Negro," he said. "I don't give a damn, but are you?" Bunche replied, "What did you think?" The owner responded, "I couldn't see you clear enough."

  In 1928, Bunche earned an M.A. in government from Harvard and went on to teach political science at Howard University, in Washington, D.C. While teaching at Howard, Bunche met a young woman, Ruth Harris, who was preparing to teach in the D.C. public school system. They later became engaged, married in 1930 and had three children.

  In 1934, Bunche received a doctorate at Harvard. His doctoral thesis was a study of colonialism and it brought him a grant to study the status of non-European peoples in Africa. After four years he returned to the U.S. to work with Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal surveying the conditions of Blacks in America. The work was not without danger -- several times they were chased from Alabama towns by angry white mobs. Their surveys led to the publication of Myrdal's widely acclaimed 1944 book, "An American Dilemma."

  During the Second World War Bunche served as a specialist in African and Far Eastern Affairs for the Office of Strategic Services, (the predecessor of the Central Intelligence Agency) where he helped prepare for the allied invasion of North Africa. He went to work at the State Department in 1945, becoming the first black to hold a desk job.

  Because of his expertise in the field of colonial affairs and trusteeship (the process of setting up transitional govemments for countries moving toward independence), Bunche was the logical choice in 1947 to direct the Trusteeship Division at the United Nations.

  He was appointed head of the UN Palestine Commission, where he drafted the United Nations' Palestine partition plan which culminated in the creation of the state of Israel. As war broke out between Israelis and Arabs, Bunche's task was to mediate between the two sides and to set up a peaceful cease-fire. In 1949, after 81 days of negotiations, Bunche worked out the "Four Armistice Agreements."

Despite his world status, Bunche and his family were not immune to racial bigotry. In 1959, Bunche and his son, Ralph Jr. were told by the president of New York's West Side Tennis Club that they could not join the club because it did not accept Negroes or Jews as members.

  Bunche won worldwide admiration for his role in these delicate negotiations and was given a hero's welcome on his return to New York, complete with tickertape parade. Egyptian and Israeli diplomats hailed him as "one of the great men of the world" and in 1950 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

  In 1962 Dr. Bunche was honored with a Key Award at the annual convention of the American Association of School Administrators in Atlantic City. It was customary for recipients to name "the teacher who most influenced his career." Bunche picked Emma Belle Sweet, 82, who had taught him in the sixth grade in Albuquerque. Miss Sweet remembered that Bunche got high grades in reading, writing and geography, but only C-plus in deportment. The renowned negotiator for world peace "used to throw spitballs," she said.

  Dr. Bunche continued at the United Nations, serving as undersecretary until illness forced his retirement and led to his death on Dec. 9, 1971.

  Dr. Bunche believed strongly in the United Nations. When well-intentioned colleagues urged him to quit the UN and enter the political arena, he responded, "It is a great privilege to take part in the continuous contest for peace, human advancement and social justice . . . I very much doubt if there is any better way to serve humanity . . ."  All though not a mason, After reading this is there any question as too why we named our Grand Lodge after this great historian.

Mrs. Ralph Bunche was in Detroit in 1972 for the unveiling of a historical placque marking the birthplace of her late husband on Detroit's lower east side.

This page was cut from an article in the Detroit News and edited.


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