Dr. Ralph J. Bunche (pictured) achieved a few firsts as an African American, but none may be more more notable than the political scientist and academic winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950. Becoming the first Black person to win the coveted award, Dr. Bunche maintained a dignified stance despite the rampant segregation he and others like him faced.
Born Ralph Johnson Bunche on August 7, 1903, or 1904 in Detroit, his early life involved some shuffling around before settling with his family in New Mexico. As a young boy, he lost his mother and brother, which led to he and his sister relocating to Los Angeles to live with his grandmother, Lucy Taylor Johnson.
Bunche’s move to California proved fruitful, and with the push from his grandmother, he excelled in academics and sports. After obtaining his undergraduate degree from the University of California, Bunche continued his studies at Harvard University.
There, he would become the first African American to obtain a political doctorate from the lauded institution in 1934.
Bunche was not seen as a radical advocate for racial equality, opting instead to use education as a means to make balance in the world. However, he did exhibit a willingness to look at racial discrimination with a discerning eye. Historians still maintain that Bunche was largely moderate in his political pursuits all the same.
Bunche’s work in the early formation of the United Nations would prove to be one of his more significant moves. During World War II, Bunche worked for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which would later spawn the CIA. He later joined the State Department before joining a planning committee for the United Nations in 1945.
Bunche later joined the UN’s secretariat and was instrumental in peace negotiations as a mediator between Arab and Israeli forces in the troubled Palestine region. From 1947 to 1949, Bunche served as a bridge of communication between the two sides and sparked the signing of the Armistice Agreements. The Agreements would signal the official end of the Arab-Israeli War of 1948.
For his efforts, Bunche was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, becoming the first Black man and person of color to win the award. Bunche’s legendary work caught the attention of then-President Harry Truman, who wanted the mediator to join his cabinet as the assistant Secretary of State.
Bunche reportedly turned the job down, because he realized his family would endure racism and segregation despite his weighty job title.
After several years of humanitarian work and remaining a staunch advocate of peaceful negotiations between warring nations, Bunche’s journey would come to an end in New York City. After suffering several ailments, Bunche passed away on December 8, 1971, at the age of 68.
Bunche’s legacy is firmed by an impressive list of awards, honors, tributes, and honorary degrees too numerous to list. This proves without doubt that Dr. Bunche’s work was not only vital in the annals of history for Black Americans, but also the entire globe.
Learn more about Dr. Ralph J. Bunche here.