Ralph Bunche

Ralph Bunche

Born Ralph Johnson Bunche
(1903-08-07)August 7, 1903 or 1904
Detroit, Michigan
Died December 9, 1971(1971-12-09) (aged 68)
New York City, New York
Known for Mediation in Israel, Nobel Peace Prize recipient
Religion Christianity

Ralph Johnson Bunche (/bʌn/; August 7, 1903 or 1904[1][2][3]   December 9, 1971) was an American political scientist, academic, and diplomat who received the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize for his late 1940s mediation in Israel.[2] He was the first African American to be so honored in the history of the prize.[4] He was involved in the formation and administration of the United Nations. In 1963, he was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President John F. Kennedy.

For more than two decades, Bunche served as chair of the Department of Political Science at Howard University (1928 to 1950), where he also taught generations of students. He served as a member of the Board of Overseers of his alma mater, Harvard University (1960–1965), as a member of the board of the Institute of International Education, and as a trustee of Oberlin College, Lincoln University, and New Lincoln School.

In August 2008, the United States National Archives and Records Administration made public the fact that Ralph Bunche had joined the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S.) – the precursor organization to the Central Intelligence Agency – during World War II.[5]


Bunche's childhood home with his grandmother in South Los Angeles.

Bunche was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1903 or 1904 and baptized at the city's Second Baptist Church. His father Fred Bunche was a barber and his mother, Olive Agnes (née Johnson), was an amateur musician, from a "large and talented family."[6] Her siblings included Charlie and Ethel Johnson.[6]

His maternal grandfather, Thomas Nelson Johnson, was mixed-race African American, the son of Eleanor Madden and her husband. Eleanor was the mixed-race daughter of an African-American slave mother and Irish planter father. Thomas Nelson Johnson graduated from Shurtleff College in Alton, Illinois in 1875, and then worked there as a teacher. In September 1875 he married Lucy Taylor, one of his students.[6]

Genealogist Paul Heinegg thinks that Fred Bunche (and Ralph) were probably descended from the South Carolina branch of the family but notes it has not been proven. He said that the censuses of 1900 and 1910 for Detroit "list several members of the Bunch family who were born in South Carolina, but Fred Bunch was not among them."[7] He believes that Bunche was descended from Bunch ancestors established as free people of color in Virginia before the American Revolution. There were men of the Bunch surname in South Carolina by the end of the 18th century.[7] The Bunch/Bunche surname was extremely rare.[8] In 2012, researchers published evidence showing that Bunch's male descendants, who moved into the frontier of Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina, can be traced through historical records and y-DNA analysis to John Punch, an African indentured servant sentenced to life service in 1640, and considered to be the first slave in Virginia. Several generations of the Bunch men, free men of color, married white women colonists from the British Isles, who were free, so their children were free.[9]

Early life and education

When Ralph was a child, his family moved to Toledo, Ohio, where his father looked for work. They returned to Detroit in 1909 after his sister Grace was born, with the help of their maternal aunt, Ethel Johnson. Their father did not live with the family again after Ohio and had not been "a good provider." But he followed them when they moved to New Mexico.[6]

Because of the declining health of his mother and uncle, Ralph moved with his maternal grandmother, Lucy Taylor Johnson, to Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1915. His mother died in 1917; his uncle committed suicide three months later.[6] Bunche was 13 years old.

In 1918, Lucy Taylor Johnson moved with the two Bunche grandchildren to the South Central neighborhood of Los Angeles, which was then mostly white.[6][10][11] Fred Bunche later remarried, and Ralph never saw him again.[6]

Bunche was a brilliant student, a debater, and the valedictorian of his graduating class at Jefferson High School. He attended the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa[12] in 1927 as the valedictorian of his class. Using the money his community raised for his studies and a graduate scholarship at Harvard University, he earned a doctorate in political science.

To help with living expenses at Harvard, Bunche sought a job at a local bookstore. The owner offered him a part-time job, and Bunche ran the store to his employer's satisfaction. One day the owner called him into the office and said, "Folks tell me you're a Negro. I don't give a damn, but are you?" Bunche asked, "What did you think?" and the owner said, "I couldn't see you clear enough."[11]

Bunche earned a master's degree in political science in 1928 and a doctorate in 1934, while he was already teaching in the Department of Political Science at Howard University, an historically black college established at the end of the Civil War. At the time, it was typical for doctoral candidates to start teaching before completion of their dissertations. He was the first African American to gain a PhD in political science from an American university. He published his first book, World View of Race, in 1936.[6] From 1936 to 1938, Ralph Bunche conducted postdoctoral research in anthropology at the London School of Economics (LSE), and later at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

World War II years

In 1940, Bunche contributed, as an investigative researcher and writer, to Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal's landmark study of racial dynamics in the U.S., An American Dilemma.

During World War II, Bunche worked in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA, as a senior social analyst on Colonial Affairs. In 1943, he was transferred from the OSS to the State Department. He was appointed Associate Chief of the Division of Dependent Area Affairs under Alger Hiss. With Hiss, Bunche became one of the leaders of the Institute of Pacific Relations (IPR). He participated in the preliminary planning for the United Nations at the San Francisco Conference of 1945. In 2008, the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration released a 51-page PDF of his OSS records, which is available online.[13]

United Nations

Near the close of World War II in 1944, Bunche took part in planning for the United Nations at the Dumbarton Oaks Conference, held in Washington, D.C. He was an adviser to the U.S. delegation for the "Charter Conference" of the United Nations held in 1945, when the governing document was drafted. Together with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Bunche was considered instrumental in the creation and adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

According to the United Nations document, "Ralph Bunche: Visionary for Peace," during his 25 years of service to the United Nations, he

"...championed the principle of equal rights for everyone, regardless of race or creed. He believed in 'the essential goodness of all people, and that no problem in human relations is insoluble.' Through the UN Trusteeship Council, Bunche readied the international stage for a period of rapid transformation, dismantling the old colonial systems in Africa and Asia, and guiding scores of emerging nations through the transition to independence in the post-war era."

Arab-Israeli conflict and Nobel Peace Prize

Beginning in 1947, Bunche was involved with trying to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict in Palestine. He served as assistant to the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, and thereafter as the principal secretary of the UN Palestine Commission. In 1948, he traveled to the Middle East as the chief aide to Sweden's Count Folke Bernadotte, who had been appointed by the UN to mediate the conflict. These men chose the island of Rhodes for their base and working headquarters. In September 1948, Bernadotte was assassinated in Jerusalem by members of the underground Jewish Lehi group, which was led by Yitzhak Shamir.

Ralph Bunche issued passes for United Nations personnel monitoring the 1949 Armistice Agreements.

Following the assassination, Bunche became the UN's chief mediator; he conducted all future negotiations on Rhodes. The representative for Israel was Moshe Dayan; he reported in memoirs that much of his delicate negotiation with Bunche was conducted over a billiard table while the two were shooting pool. Optimistically, Bunche commissioned a local potter to create unique memorial plates bearing the name of each negotiator. When the agreement was signed, Bunche awarded these gifts. After unwrapping his, Dayan asked Bunche what might have happened if no agreement had been reached. "I'd have broken the plates over your damn heads," Bunche answered. For achieving the 1949 Armistice Agreements, Dr. Bunche received the Nobel Peace Prize[14] in 1950.[15] He continued to work for the United Nations, mediating in other strife-torn regions, including the Congo, Yemen, Kashmir, and Cyprus. Bunche was appointed as undersecretary-general of the UN in 1968.

Civil rights movement

The grave of Ralph Bunche

Bunche was an active and vocal supporter of the civil rights movement in the United States. He participated in the 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech, and also in the Selma to Montgomery, Alabama march in 1965, which contributed to passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 and federal enforcement of voting rights.[16]

Bunche lived in the Kew Gardens neighborhood of Queens, New York, in a home purchased with his Nobel Prize money, from 1953 until his death.[17] Like many other people of color, Bunche continued to struggle against racism across the United States and sometimes in his own neighborhood. In 1959, he and his son, Ralph, Jr., were denied membership in the West Side Tennis Club in the Forest Hills neighborhood of Queens. After the issue was given national coverage by the press, the club offered the Bunches an apology and invitation of membership. The official who had rebuffed them resigned. Bunche refused the offer, saying it was not based on racial equality and was an exception based only on his personal prestige.[10]

Marriage and family

While teaching at Howard University in 1928, Bunche met Ruth Harris as one of his students. They later started seeing each other and married June 23, 1930. The couple had three children: Joan Harris Bunche (b. 1931), Jane Johnson Bunche (b. 1933) (later married to Burton Pierce), and Ralph J. Bunche, Jr. (b. 1943).[6]

On October 9, 1966, their daughter Jane Bunche Pierce fell or jumped from the roof of her Riverdale, Bronx apartment building; her death was believed to be suicide.[6] She left no note. Her husband Burton Pierce, a Cornell University alumnus, was a labor relations executive, and they had three children. Their apartment was on the first floor of the building.[18]

Several of Bunche's residences are listed on the National Register of Historic Places:

Name Location Years of Residence Notes
Ralph J. Bunche House Los Angeles, Cal. 1919?–1928? Also a Los Angeles Historical-Cultural Monument.
Ralph Bunche House Washington, D.C. 1941–1947 Built for Bunche.[19]
Parkway Village Queens, N.Y. 1947–1952 Apartment complex built for UN employees.[19]
Ralph Johnson Bunche House Queens, N.Y. 1952–1971 Also a National Historic Landmark and a New York City designated landmark.[19]


Bunche resigned from his position at the UN due to ill health, but this was not announced as Secretary-General U Thant hoped he would be able to return soon. His health did not improve, and Bunche died December 9, 1971, at age 68, from complications of diabetes mellitus. He was survived by his wife, daughter Joan, son Ralph, and the three Pierce grandchildren.[10] His wife later enjoyed three additional grandchildren and several great-grandchildren.[1] He is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York City.[20]


Selected bibliography

See also


  1. 1 2 Urquhart, Brian (November 19, 1998). Ralph Bunche: an American life. W. W. Norton & Company. p. 25. ISBN 978-0-393-31859-3. Retrieved October 13, 2011.
  2. 1 2 "Nobel Peace Prize 1950– Ralph Bunche". Nobelprize.org. 1950. Retrieved November 30, 2010.
  3. Bunche Charter School. Greendot.org (August 7, 1904). Retrieved on 2011-08-03.
  4. William Greaves, director (2001). Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey (Television production). New York City: William Greaves Productions, Inc.
  5. "Office of Strategic Services Personnel Files from World War II (Record Group 226)". Archives.gov. National Archives and Records Administration. August 2008. Retrieved July 16, 2014.
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 "Ralph J. Bunche", Gale Cengage Learning, accessed November 15, 2012
  7. 1 2 Paul Heinegg, "Bunch Family", Free African Americans of Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina, Quote: "Others [of Bunch Family in South Carolina i. Lovet, head of a South Orangeburg District household of 8 "other free" in 1790 [SC:99]. He lived for a while in Robeson County, North Carolina, since "Lovec Bunches old field" was mentioned in March 1, 1811 will of John Hammons [WB 1:125]. ii. Gib., a taxable "free negro" in the District between Broad and Catawba River, South Carolina, in 1784 [South Carolina Tax List 1783–1800, frame 37]. iii. Paul2, head of a Union District, South Carolina household of 6 "other free" in 1800 [SC:241]. iv. Henry4, head of a Newberry District, South Carolina household of 2 "other free" in 1800 [SC:66]. v. Ralph J., Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1950, probably descended from the South Carolina branch of the family, but this has not been proved. He was born in Detroit, Michigan, on August 7, 1904, son of Fred and Olive Bunche. The 1900 and 1910 census for Detroit lists several members of the Bunch family who were born in South Carolina, but Fred Bunch was not among them."
  8. Quote: Of the fewer than one hundred African men who resided in Virginia before 1640, John Punch is the only man who bears a surname similar to Bunch. John Punch was an adult male living in the period in which John Bunch I was born in Virginia, and resided in the same county. Evidence strongly suggests that John Punch was the father of John Bunch I."
  9. Paul Heinegg, "Bunch Family", Free African Americans in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland and Delaware, 1995–2005. Heinegg and other researchers have found that, as in the case of the Bunch descendants, most such free families were descended from unions of white women, free or indentured servants, with African men, free, indentured or slaves, as the colonial working class intermarried. Their children were free because of being born to free white women, under the colony's law of partus sequitur ventrem.
  10. 1 2 3 Robert D. McFadden (December 10, 1971). "Dr. Bunche of U.N., Nobel winner, Dies". New York Times. nytimes.com. Retrieved October 22, 2010.
  11. 1 2 3 Laurie J. Marzejka (August 29, 1997). "Michigan History: Dr. Ralph Bunche—from Detroit to the world stage". The Detroit News. detnews.com. Retrieved October 22, 2010.
  12. https://www.pbk.org/WEB/pbkdocs/NobelLaureates2009.pdf
  13. "Digital Copies of Selected OSS Personnel Files – Bunche, Ralph" (PDF). Archives.gov. National Archives and Records Administration. August 2008.
  14. Asle Sveen Ralph Bunche: UN Mediator in the Middle East, 1948–1949 at the Wayback Machine (archived December 31, 2008). Nobelprize.org. December 29, 2006
  15. Benjamin Rivlin, "Vita: Ralph Johnson Bunche: Brief life of a champion of human dignity: 1903–1971", Harvard Magazine, November 2003.
  16. "Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Dr. Ralph J. Bunche: Nobel Peace Prize Winners Whose Paths Converge", Black Collegian, 2005, Retrieved on 2011-08-03.
  17. Rimer, Sara. "From Queens Streets, City Hall Seems Very Distant", The New York Times, October 19, 1989. Accessed November 13, 2007.
  18. "Ralph Bunche's Daughter Falls to Death". The Park City Daily News (Bowling Green, Kentucky). Google Newspapers. March 10, 1966. p. 3. Retrieved November 30, 2010.
  19. 1 2 3 "Ralph Bunche House" (PDF). New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. Retrieved January 2, 2014.
  20. Ralph Bunche at Find a Grave
  21. NAACP Spingarn Medal
  22. "Ralph J Bunche Birthplace". Michigan State Housing Development Authority. Archived from the original on November 22, 2012.
  23. "Bunche's Tall Tales". UCLA Magazine. April 1, 2006.
  24. "About the Ralph J. Bunche International Affairs Center". Howard University. 2001. Retrieved November 30, 2010.
  25. Asante, Molefi Kete (2002). 100 Greatest African Americans: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books. p. 345. ISBN 1-57392-963-8.

Further reading

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Political offices
Preceded by
Position Created
Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations
for Special Political Affairs

Succeeded by
Brian Urquhart
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