The location shown in this picture was the exact, or close to, the birthplace of Ralph J. Bunche, the only Detroit native, African-American to win a Noble prize. His parents lived here for some time after his birth in August, 1904. In 1972, a State of Michigan Historical marker was put in place on a store once located here. It provided the following information.
Birthplace of Dr. Ralph J. Bunche, Undersecretary-General of the United Nations for the last sixteen years of his life. Ralph Bunche, grandson of a slave, was born in this neighborhood of Detroit on August 7, 1904, and lived here for the first decade of his life. Following the death of his parents in 1915, he spent the rest of his childhood in the West. After a brilliant career in political science at Harvard, Bunche collaborated in the late 1930s with Gunnar Myrdal in his monumental study of racism in America. Entering government service during World War II, he joined the State Department and was active in drafting the charter of the United Nations. Bunche's success as a UN mediator after the Arab-Israeli war of 1948 won for him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950. He died in New York on December 9, 1971.
Ralph Johnson Bunche is one of the important figures in this nation’s history. His father was a Detroit barber and his mother an amateur musician. His grandmother—born a slave—lived with his family. I infer that his father was not financially secure and moved about quite a bit in search of better jobs. I think that Ralph Bunche spent some of his youth in Toledo and attended school there.
By 1914, his parents’ health deteriorated and they hoped that a move to Albuquerque with its salubrious climate would cure them. Unfortunately, they died less than two years later and, from, about age 12, Ralph Bunche was raised by his grandmother. She moved the family to Los Angeles and strongly emphasized intellectual achievement. Bunche apparently won prizes for his scholarly endeavors in elementary school and then graduated as valedictorian of his class at Jefferson High School. He enrolled in the newly founded University of California at Los Angeles. He had to work his way through that college, but found time to play basketball on their team. He graduated summa cum laude and, once again, was valedictorian of his class—the 1927 UCLA class.
With financial help from the Los Angeles black community, Ralph Bunche matriculated at Harvard for advanced studies in political science and international relations. He earned a masters’ degree in 1928. After extensive travel in Africa, he wrote a dissertation about French governance of their colonies on that continent. His dissertation won a Harvard prize for being the best social science document in the year his doctorate was confirmed: 1934. Ralph Bunch began teaching at Howard University while still a graduate student at Harvard and then chaired the Political Science Department at Howard for a considerable period. He also undertook post-doctoral studies at Northwestern University and the London School of Economics.
There are, perhaps, four great public achievements of Detroit’s Ralph Bunche:
• his key role in Gunnar Myrdal’s definitive student of race in this country
• the founding of the United Nations in 1945
• ending the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948
• successfully leading United Nations’ peacekeeping efforts in the Suez Canal area and in Cyprus in the 1960s
Following a racial confrontation in Harlem in 1935, the Carnegie Foundation appointed the eminent Swedish economist, Gunnar Myrdal, to write a book summarizing racial issues in the United States. At that time, racial issues referred to blacks. Myrdal’s comprehensive, massive and provocative document, An American Dilemma, published in 1944, is the most important book ever published about race in this country. It brought civil rights issues and the persistent discrimination blacks faced in all parts of the nation to the attention of the nation’s elite. This book was extraordinarily important in establishing a foundation for the civil rights movements that flourished in the years after World War II. From 1938 to 1941, while chairing the Political Science Department at Howard University, Ralph Bunche served as one of a small group of key advisors to Myrdal. It is accurate to assert that Myrdal’s views of the racial situation in the United States were strongly influenced by Ralph Bunche and a half-dozen or so other scholars.
Early in World War II, the Department of State appointed Bunche to serve as an advisor on military issues in the African colonies of France and England that he had visited in the previous decade. I infer that they found his work extremely satisfactory. Later in the war he represented the United States at many meetings throughout the world, particularly meetings involving the status of the European colonies that were then found throughout the entire world.
In 1945, quiet meetings were held in San Francisco to draw up a charter for the United Nations (UN). Each of the major countries represented in those negotiations had its own agenda and each was afraid of a world government that would limit their prerogatives. President Truman favored the creation of the UN but faced great opposition from the extremely strong isolationist movement in this country. Ralph Bunche, I infer, played a crucial role in designing a charter for the United Nations that would be acceptable to all the major powers and would not offend too much the many Americans who detested the idea of a powerful international organization, indeed, one that would be headquartered in New York.
In 1946, Trygve Lie, Secretary General of the United Nations, appointed Ralph Bunche to head a group that would deal with the immense problems of the numerous groups of people whose government had been changed by World War II and who sought to create their own nations. Some thousands of these people were suffering refugees. The following year, Ralph Bunche took on the obligations that led to his Noble Prize. The United Nations was responsible for a peaceful partition of Arabs and Jews in Palestine or Transjordan so that Israel could become a nation. Ralph Bunche was appointed to a Untied Nations commission responsible for that partition. The process did not go well and, by early 1948, the Arabs and the Israelis were at war. The United Nations appointed a diplomat, Swedish Count Folke Bernadotte, as a mediator with Ralph Bunche as his key assistant. In June, 1948 Count Bernadotte arranged a one-month cease fire but proposed that Israel relinquish control of Negev and Jerusalem and obtain western Galilee in return. Both sides rejected this idea so fighting resumed in July, 1948. Militant Zionists in Israel assumed that Count Bernadotte was trampling on the rights of Israel. He was assassinated in September, 1949, but most Israeli leaders condemned that killing and sought to continuing working with the U N. Ralph Bunche took over immediately. After eleven months of negotiations, Bunche succeeded in getting the Arabs and Israelis to sign a peace agreement ending Israel’s first war. For this achievement, the Noble Committee awarded the 1950 Peace Prize to the man born near the intersection of Anthon and Junction.
Ralph Bunche continued his service at the United Nations for the rest of his life. He was appointed Undersecretary General in 1955. Today, there appears to be much skepticism about whether United Nations Peacekeeping Forces can effectively prevent or end warfare. That was not always the situation. In 1960, there was a crisis in the Suez Canal area and it appeared that another Arab-Israeli war was inevitable. The UN sent six thousand peacekeeping troops, with Ralph Bunche as the diplomatic leader. His efforts successfully prevented a war, saving the lives of thousands of Arabs and Israelis. Four years later, it appeared probable that Greece and Turkey would go to war over control of Cyprus—the divided island in the Mediterrean. Each nation prepared for a major war. Once again the United Nation’s dispatched about 6,000 troops with Ralph Bunche serving as the diplomatic—not military—leader. Once again, his efforts and those of the United Nations prevented a war.
In many cities, there would be a high school commemorating the achievements of a native who accomplished as much as Ralph Bunche did. And there would likely be a statue or two along with a attractive park or impressive municipal building bearing his name. So far as I know, there are no schools or parks in Detroit honoring Ralph Bunche. In fairness, his parents had no strong ties to Detroit and he moved away as a child, spending his formative years in Los Angeles. Perhaps, the only building bearing his name in the area today is the Ralph Bunche School in Ecorse pictured below.
Ralph J. Bunche School
503 Hyacinth Street
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: P25,033 Listed February 11, 1972
State of Michigan Historical Marker: Put in place April 27, 1972. This marker has been removed. I believe that it disappeared before the building where it was located was razed.
Book: Brian Urquhart, Ralph Bunche: American Odyssey. New York, W. W. Norton, 1999.
Photograph: Ren Farley; November 12, 2009
Description prepared: November, 2009
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