Ella Josephine Baker was born in Virginia, and at the age of seven Ella Baker moved with her family to Littleton, South Carolina, where they settled on her grandparent’s farmland her grandparents had worked as slaves. Ella Baker’s early life was steeped in Southern black culture. Her most vivid childhood memories were of the strong traditions of self-help, mutual cooperation, and sharing of economic resources that encompassed her entire community. Because there was no local secondary school, in 1918, when Ella was fifteen years old, her parents sent her to Shaw boarding school in Raleigh, the high school academy of Shaw University. Ella excelled academically at Shaw, graduating as valedictorian of her college class from Shaw University in Raleigh in 1927.
After her graduation from Shaw University, Baker migrated to New York City on the eve of the Great Depression, determined to find an outlet for her intellectual curiosity and growing compassion for social justice. She was deeply moved by the terrible conditions she witnessed on the streets of Harlem during the 1930s; scenes of poverty, hunger, and desperation.
The first political organization she joined after moving to Harlem was the Young Negroes Cooperative League (YNCL), founded by writer George Schuyler in December 1930. The expressed purpose of the group was to gain economic power through consumer cooperation. The YNCL was headquartered in New York City. In 1931 Baker was elected to serve as the group’s first national director. Another important experience that helped to shape Baker’s evolving political consciousness during the Depression was her employment with the Workers Education Project (WEP) of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a program designed to equip workers with basic literacy skills and to educate them about topics of concern to members of the work force. During the 1930s, Baker also began to grapple with the issue of women’s equality and her own identity as an African-American woman. She supported and worked with various women’s groups, such as the Women’s Day Workers and Industrial League, a union for domestic workers; the Harlem Housewives Cooperative; and the Harlem YWCA. Baker refused to be relegated to a separate “woman’s sphere,” either personally or politically. She often participated, without reservation, in meetings where she was the only woman present, and many of her closest political allies over the years were men. Similarly, in her personal life Baker refused to comply with prevailing social norms about women’s place or women’s behavior. When she married her longtime friend, T. J. Roberts, in the late 1930s, the marriage was anything but conventional, which typified her rebellious spirit. Baker never assumed her husband’s name, an unusual act of independence in those days. Also, even though she was married for over a decade, she never framed her identity as a woman around that of her husband and apparently never allowed domestic obligations to interfere with her principal passion, which was politics.
While in Harlem in the 1930s, Baker also worked as a reporter and editor for a variety of publications, including the West Indian News and the National News, a short-lived publication run by her close friend George Schuyler. In 1935 she coauthored an investigative article that exposed the plight of African-American domestic workers in New York during the Depression, which was published in the Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP. Among her political friends and associates in Harlem during this period were labor leader A. Philip Randolph, Lester Granger of the National Urban League, Communist Party lawyer Conrad Lynn, and George Schuyler.
The next important phase of Baker’s political career, which further solidified her evolving views of political struggle and social change, was the beginning of her involvement in the NAACP in 1940. Throughout her relationship with the NAACP, first as a field secretary and later as director of branches (194346), Baker remained on the staff of the NAACP until 1946, when, fed up with bureaucratic structure of the organization and its legalistic strategy for social change, she resigned as director of branches. Another factor that influenced her resignation was the added responsibilities she assumed when she took custody of her nine-year-old niece, Jackie. Baker continued to work with the NAACP in a volunteer capacity as the president of the New York branch, the