Ralph Johnson Bunche was born on August 7, 1904 (some sources say 1903), in Detroit, Michigan. After his family relocated to Albuquerque, New Mexico, Bunche’s mother died during his early adolescence; reports vary on whether his father died soon after or had left the family. As a result, Bunche and his younger sister relocated to Los Angeles and were taken in by his maternal grandmother, Lucy Taylor Johnson, who became a major advocate for the education of her grandson.
Bunche proved to be a brilliant student, graduating as valedictorian from Jefferson High School and excelling in athletics. He attended the University of California on scholarship, playing varsity sports and working as a janitor to pay for additional expenses. He also took to working as part of a ship’s crew during summers, after being made to toil upon being caught as a stowaway on his way to a college military program.
Bunche graduated in 1927 as valedictorian of his class and a member of Phi Beta Kappa. He entered Harvard University and earned his M.A. in 1928 and his Ph.D. in governmental/international relations in 1934, thus becoming the first African American to earn a political science doctorate. In 1928 he also joined the faculty of Howard University, and subsequently helped to launch their political science department. He later did postgraduate anthropological work at institutions like the London School of Economics and the University of Cape Town.
Bunche married Ruth Ethel Harris in 1930; the couple went on to have three children.
Career With the United Nations
Bunche became co-director of Swarthmore College’s Institute of Race Relations by the mid-1930s and wrote the 1936 book A World View of Race. By the end of the decade, he also assisted journalist/sociologist Gunnar Myrdal in his research for the book An American Dilemma (1944), which looked unflinchingly at racial discrimination in the United States.
During World War II, Bunche worked as part of the National Defense Program and later joined the U.S. State Department, becoming a key player in the formation of the United Nations. He eventually left the State Department to join the global organization’s secretariat.
Winning the Nobel Peace Prize
One of Bunche’s major achievements was his efforts from 1947 to 1949 to bring peace to the region of Palestine, the site of major conflict between Arab and Israeli forces. After his supervisor, mediator Count Folke Bernadotte, was killed in a terrorist attack, Bunche was called upon to helm the talks on the island of Rhodes. The long negotiation process was defined by the diplomat’s willingness to meet with both sides and be meticulous, calm and patient about getting parties to sit with each other and get used to signing off on smaller matters.
The Armistice Agreements were signed in 1949. Bunche won the Nobel Peace Prize the following year, becoming the first African American and person of color in the world to receive the award.
Though President Harry Truman subsequently wished for Bunche to become the U.S. assistant secretary of state, Bunche turned down the offer, citing the segregationist policies that still ruled the nation’s capital and saying he did not want to subject his children to them.