First African-American Nobel Peace Prize Winner

February 1, 2012 by staff 

First African-American Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Ralph Bunche ( August 7, 1903 (disputed) or 1904 – December 9, 1971) was an American political scientist and diplomat who received the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize for his late 1940s mediation in Palestine. He was the first person of color to be so honored in the history of the Prize. He was involved in the formation and administration of the United Nations and in 1963, received the Medal of Freedom from President John F. Kennedy.

Bunche’s childhood home in South Los Angeles. Bunche was born in Detroit, Michigan to an African American family and baptized at the city’s Second Baptist Church. His father, Fred, was a barber, while his mother, Olive Agnes (née Johnson), was an amateur musician. His father had ancestors who were freed before the American Revolution. When he was a child, the family moved to Toledo, Ohio then in 1915, Albuquerque, New Mexico in an effort to improve his parents’ health. His mother died in 1916, and his father, who had left Albuquerque to look for work before Olive’s death, did not return for Ralph or his sister. His father remarried and Ralph never saw him again. Bunche and his sister, Grace, went to live in Los Angeles with their maternal grandmother, Lucy Taylor Johnson, though some sources list her name as Agnes Johnson.

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 and graduated summa cum laude in 1927, again as the valedictorian of his class. Using the money his community raised for his studies, and a scholarship from the University, he studied at Harvard University. To help with his living expenses while at Harvard, Bunche sought a job at a local bookstore. The myopic owner, who did not realize Bunche was black, offered him a part-time job. Bunche excelled at running the store to his employer’s satisfaction until 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 replied, “I couldn’t see you clear enough.”

Beginning in 1947, Bunche was involved with the Arab-Israeli conflict. 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 group Lehi.

Following the assassination, Dr. Bunche became the UN’s chief mediator and chose to conduct all future negotiations on Rhodes. The representative for Israel was Moshe Dayan who reported in memoirs that much of his delicate negotiation with Ralph Bunche was conducted over a billiard table while the two were shooting pool. Optimistically, Dr. Bunche commissioned a local potter to create unique memorial plates bearing the name of each negotiator. When the agreement was signed, Dr. Bunche awarded these gifts. After unwrapping his, Moshe Dayan asked Ralph 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 Peace Prize, in 1950. He continued to work for the United Nations, mediating in other strife-torn regions, including the Congo, Yemen, Kashmir, and Cyprus. He rose to the position of undersecretary-general in 1968.

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