Reference Entry

Villard, Oswald Garrison

Carolyn Wedin

in Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century

Published in print January 2009 | ISBN: 9780195167795
Villard, Oswald Garrison

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journalist, author, reform activist for minority rights, women's suffrage, and union rights. Oswald Garrison Villard was born in Germany to Fanny Garrison, daughter of the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, and the railroad and newspaper magnate Henry Villard. The elder Villard had come from Speyer on the Rhine to New York at age eighteen as Heinrich Hilgard, had covered the 1858 debates between the congressional candidates Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas as a reporter, and had become a friend of Lincoln's. So the son, Oswald Garrison, had a great deal to live up to on both sides of the family, but also the financial means to do a great deal.In his memoir, Fighting Years, Oswald Garrison Villard fondly remembers his early life from 1877 in New York City's The Westmoreland, the first apartment house with an elevator, and then a move in 1879 to Dobbs Ferry, the hundred-acre Thorwood estate on the Hudson which would be his country home for forty-eight years. He and his siblings did not wonder, he says, why they had a private railroad car when touring California in 1877 and in attending the Golden Spike ceremony in Colorado on the completion of Henry Villard's Northern Pacific portion of the transcontinental railroad route in September 1883. In 1884 the entire family moved to Berlin for two years, which got rid of his American “spread eagle-ism,” Villard said, and turned him into an internationalist (p. 62). Upon returning, the family resided in the lower three floors of the Louis C. Tiffany house at Seventy-second Street and Madison Avenue in Manhattan, with its drawing room large enough for three hundred guests invited to hear Thomas Edison's new invention, the phonograph.In 1889 Villard matriculated at Harvard after camping for six weeks with his brother and a friend in Yellowstone National Park and Jackson Hole country in an attempt to boost his lungs, which were subject to bronchial attacks. Unfortunately, his brother died during Villard's last exams at Harvard before his degree in June of 1893. (He received his AM degree there in 1896, and later received honorary degrees from Washington and Lee University, 1906; Lafayette College, 1915; Howard University, 1933; and the University of Oregon, 1935.) With a drive to write, Villard then spent months traveling to the Chicago World's Fair, Spain, North Africa, Sicily, Egypt, Greece, Turkey, the Balkans, and Vienna until an invitation from the history professor Albert Bushnell Hart at Harvard brought him back there to serve as an assistant. Teaching confirmed his desire to be a journalist, so he joined the staff of the Philadelphia Press before moving to his father's New York Evening Post, where he first took over the Saturday feature supplement to “learn the ropes” and then in 1897 became president and editorial writer.It was in this position that Villard had the life-changing experience of traveling to Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia and Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute in Alabama with the philanthropist Robert C. Ogden. Not only was Villard impressed with what these and other Negro schools were doing in the face of terrible injustice, but he also met his Kentucky wife, Julia B. Sandford. Some of his future conflicts with fellow officers of the NAACP are hinted at here. Accustomed to relating to Negroes either as servants, as in his early life and his wife's experience, or as obsequious seekers of white support, as with Washington, Villard was never able to join in the debates and conflicts with W. E. B. Du Bois, for example, as equal to equal in the way other early white NAACP leaders such as Mary White Ovington and Joel and Arthur Spingarn were.It is to Ovington that much credit can be given for recruiting and maintaining Villard in a supportive relation to the NAACP. She traveled to the South in 1905–1906, sending articles back to Villard's New York Evening Post, including several pieces both on Washington's farmer conferences at Tuskegee and on Du Bois's Niagara Movement meetings at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Meanwhile, with another wealthy Negro sympathizer, John Milholland, she involved Villard in the Constitution League and other activities which moved sympathies toward Du Bois in the debates between the two Negro leaders.When the NAACP was formed, it was Ovington who saw the need for Villard's support and money, and she drew him in with his writing skills to revise “The Call,” which was published on Abraham Lincoln's one-hundredth birthday on 12 February 1909 with signatures of over fifty prominent people, announcing meetings to confront the conditions of black Americans, and cajoled him into staying with the group, even as he was prone to insist that Washington had to be involved, too. Thus Villard provided the initial office space for the NAACP and The Crisis, which emerged from those meetings, going along with bringing Du Bois in as editor though he was not happy about it, and was early on elected chairman of the board.Conflicts about “authority” between the editor and the chairman were not helped by Villard's publishing a negative review of Du Bois's John Brown book just before Villard's own exhaustive biography of the abolitionist appeared. Increasing clashes led Villard to leave the chairmanship in November 1913 and be elected treasurer at the annual meeting in January 1914. In 1919, when Ovington became chairman of the board, Villard resigned both as treasurer and as a board member and was made an honorary vice president. Though he later returned to becoming active with the group (again thanks to Ovington's repeated invitations), most of his high energy, formidable writing and editing skills, and careless courage in fighting for what he believed was spent after 1920 on other things: women's suffrage and especially peace issues. As editor and owner of The Nation, which was separated from its parent paper, the Post, when the latter was sold in 1918, Villard turned it into a clear, well-written, strong voice for liberalism. The author of a large number of well-written books as well, Oswald Garrison Villard with his administrative and journalistic skills was a fortunate ally and participant in the early days of the NAACP and other black rights organizations.

Reference Entry.  1167 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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