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Ella Jo Baker was born on December 13, 1903, in Norfolk, Virginia. Growing up in neighboring North Carolina, she developed a sense for social justice early on, due in part to her grandmother’s stories about life under slavery in the South.
As an enslaved person, her grandmother had been whipped for refusing to marry a man chosen for her by the slave owner.
Her grandmother’s pride and resilience in the face of racism and injustice is credited as the inspiration behind Ms. Baker’s life’s work and tireless dedication.
A daughter of farmers, Ella Baker advocated for equality from dawn to dusk
Ella Baker’s maternal grandparents bought, lived on, and cultivated land that was formerly a part of the plantation on which they were enslaved. They bought the land for $250, which they paid off in installments.
This purchase was the source of great pride for their family, and they went on to become successful farmers.
Baker was reared in Littleton, North Carolina. In 1918 she began attending the high school academy of Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. Baker continued her college education at Shaw, graduating as valedictorian in 1927.
Ms. Baker played a key role in some of the most influential organizations of the time, including the NAACP, Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Baker studied at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. As a student she challenged school policies that she thought were unfair.
After graduating in 1927 as class valedictorian, she moved to New York City and began joining social activist organizations.
In 1930, she joined the Young Negroes Cooperative League, whose purpose was to develop Black economic power through collective planning.
She also involved herself with several women’s organizations. She was committed to economic justice for all people and once said, “People cannot be free until there is enough work in this land to give everybody a job.”
Ella Baker’s legacy continues today
The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights website states, “we continue in her legacy when we say books not bars, jobs not jails and healthcare not handcuffs. We know the prison system is the largest provider of mental health care and substance abuse rehabilitation in our country today.”
“Prisons cannot continue to be the answer to these public health crises. Care-based and community-based solutions are the answer like healthcare for all, free public education, and housing as a recognized human right.”
Podcasts have also been released within the organization which discuss today’s most pertinent social injustices, which have yet to be rectified since the days of Mother Ella’s Civil Rights Era.
“We build on her legacy by building the power of Black, Brown, and poor people to create solutions for one of the biggest drivers of injustice today: mass incarceration.”
Baker also supported the Puerto Rican independence movement and spoke out against apartheid in South Africa. She allied with a number of women’s groups, Third World Women’s Alliance and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.
Her influence was reflected in the nickname she acquired: “Fundi,” a Swahili word meaning a person who teaches a craft to the next generation.
Baker continued to be a respected and influential leader in the fight for human and civil rights until her death on her 83rd birthday.