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Oral History Interview with Ella Baker, April 19, 1977. Interview G-0008. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007).
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  • Abstract
    Civil rights activist and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) mentor Ella Josephine Baker outlines her family history, traces her growing radical tendencies, and explains the catalysts that pushed her into public activism. Baker opens the interview with her own family's history. She explains how important the church was to her family and to the life of her community, and she reflects on how that heritage affected her later social activism. She also describes how economic pressures led to a migration of rural southern black families—including her own—to large cities during the early twentieth century: to find work, Baker's father and several of his siblings moved from Warren County, North Carolina, to Norfolk, Virginia. Her father found a job on a steamer that ran from Norfolk to Washington, D.C. After a few years in Norfolk, Baker, her brother, and her mother moved back to North Carolina while her father remained in Virginia to work. Baker attended Shaw University for nine years, completing both her high school and college education at the same institution. While there, she took issue with some of the positions of the university's administration; meanwhile she felt that the professors prompted her to begin questioning her society. After graduating from Shaw, Baker moved to New York City and began working with the Workers' Education Project (WEP). After a few years with the WEP, she became involved in the Cooperative League (CL), an alliance of cooperative businesses. Through her contacts in the CL, Baker joined the NAACP in the early 1940s. She discusses the limitations placed on women in the organization and how she overcame them. Though Baker had enjoyed her work for the NAACP, she felt that the administrative leadership took advantage of her abilities without according her a similar level of recognition or respect. For this reason, she left her job after four and a half years. Soon thereafter, Baker married and assumed guardianship of her niece. In the 1950s, Baker became involved in education activism and, in 1958, she returned to the South, quickly joining the protests occurring in Montgomery. She was the only woman present at the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and she speaks briefly about the important leaders that emerged from that organization. While working for the SCLC, Baker helped organize SNCC and mentored its leaders as they separated from the SCLC.
    Excerpts
  • How rural black families experienced Reconstruction and the New South
  • Family moves so that father can find better work opportunities
  • Baker describes her parents' courtship
  • Deaths of Baker's siblings affect her parents
  • Norfolk's segregated neighborhoods; Baker family's socioeconomic position
  • The adults in Baker's life
  • Baker, mother, and brother move back to Warren County, North Carolina
  • Stories Baker heard about slavery
  • Role of church in Baker family's life and its influence on her later activism
  • Baker's experiences at Shaw
  • Shaw prepares Baker for her later activism
  • Working for the WPA's Workers' Education Project
  • Thoughts on challenges facing interracial marriages
  • Becoming involved with the NAACP
  • Experiences as a woman working for the NAACP
  • Reasons for leaving the NAACP
  • Marriage and guardianship of niece
  • Involvement in Harlem's school desegregation
  • Helping found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference
  • Helping found the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee
  • SNCC separates from SCLC
  • Learn More
  • Finding aid to the Southern Oral History Program Collection
  • Database of all Southern Oral History Program Collection interviews
  • The Southern Oral History Program transcripts presented here on Documenting the American South undergo an editorial process to remove transcription errors. Texts may differ from the original transcripts held by the Southern Historical Collection.

    Funding from the Institute for Museum and Library Services supported the electronic publication of this title.