Pioneering political scientist, professor, and diplomat Dr. Ralph J. Bunche (pictured) overcame early hardships as a teenager, excelling as a high school and college student before becoming the first African-American to earn a PhD in political science from an American university. As noteworthy as that accomplishment was, however, Bunche also owns the distinction of being the first African-American recipient of the coveted Nobel Peace Prize on this day in 1950.
Born in Detroit in 1903, Bunche and his parents shuffled around from Ohio to New Mexico in an effort to find adequate medical care. Bunche’s mother, Olive, would pass in 1916. when young Ralph was just 13 years of age. He and his sister, Grace, would uproot from there to live in Los Angeles and Bunche found his academic stride as a standout student at Jefferson High School.
Carrying the momentum forward, he enrolled at the University of California, Los Angeles – graduating in 1927 at the top of his class. Using monies raised by his neighbors, he went on to obtain a graduate scholarship at Harvard University.
Listen to Bunch’s story here:
Bunche earned a master’s degree in political science in 1928 and a doctorate in 1934, although he was already teaching at Howard University’s political science department at the time. His doctorate from Harvard and its historic distinction landed Bunche prime jobs teaching abroad in London and South Africa as well. Although politics and education were his main focuses, he would become an instrumental member of the State Department in 1943 before heading to the United Nations.
Bunche and former-First Lady and political activist Eleanor Roosevelt were credited for helping to create the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was later adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. As the Second World War became a shadow and Arab-Israeli conflicts arose globally, Bunche was at the forefront of peace talks and worked in the Middle East as part of the UN Palestine Commission. After Swedish UN Mediator Count Folke Bernadotte was assassinated by an underground Jewish group, Bunche became the head mediator.
Negotiating with Israeli representative Moshe over games of pool, Bunche was key in helping smooth over the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and thus aided in the warring regions signing of the 1949 Armistice Agreements. For his efforts, Bunche would receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950, continuing his important work for the United Nations in helping to mend other war-torn international locations.
Bunche was a staunch supporter of the Civil Rights Movement and actively participated in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 March On Washington and also the Selma to Montgomery march as well.
Bunche’s achievements and accolades prove that with devotion to education and an indomitable will, a person can achieve high heights in the face of adversity and hardship. Although Bunche’s name lives on in the annals of history, his story is one that deserves a proper retelling for children of today.