Born in Norfolk Virginia, raised in Littleton, North Carolina, after graduating from Shaw University, Ella settled and would live the rest of her life as a New Yorker—a Harlemite. In Harlem she would come into contact with the likes of DuBois, A. Phillip Randolph, George Schuyler, Adam Clayton Powell, Robeson, Malcolm, John Henrik Clarke, and others. She came to Harlem when Garveyism was still in the air, and while the Renaissance lingered.
As a child, Baker's her grandmother told her stories of slave revolts, and told her of her own experience during enslavement. She helped create in Ella a sense of mission, purpose, and even defiance, by telling of her own whipping she received from her master for refusing to marry a man chosen for her. And Baker would demonstrated a similar struggle all her life. Through graduating from Shaw University as the 1927 valedictorian, which was an accomplishment in itself, but as a student she challenged various school policies that she thought were unfair.
Due to the poor quality of the public schools for black children in Littleton, Ella’s parents worked hard to send Ella, and her brother and sister, to different boarding schools. Ella Baker entered Shaw University, in Raleigh, North Carolina, which was both a high school and college, at fifteen. But it was necessary for her to work during the school year, and during the summer. She worked as lab assistant because of her excellent grades and interest in biology and chemistry, and had plans of being a medical missionary, or a social worker, but lack of funds and the social conditions and realities of the South, forced her to New York City in search of employment.
While working as a waitress, Ella began writing for Harlem newspapers. One of the papers, “The West Indian Review,” focused on providing news to immigrants from the Caribbean. Baker identified with the immigrant condition, being a migrant herself, coming to the North for the same reasons. She attended meetings, discussions/debates groups, which discussed the important issues of the day. Most times she was the only woman present. While working in the Harlem office of a Black newspaper, she befriended writer George Schuyler, who considered himself at that time a “race man,” dedicated to boldly attacking injustice and racism. (He would later become one of the first Black conservatives. With Schuyler, Baker developed and created a food cooperative called the Young Negroes Cooperative League, a reminder of how blacks in the South shared with each other to survive. Her expertise working with the cooperative, and her experience in consumer affairs, teaching people how to shop for quality food and other items for less money), she was hired by the Works Progress Administration (WPA).
In 1938, Baker went to work for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Ella soon became an assistant field secretary and was sent to the branches of the organization across the South in an effort to recruit members. Because the NAACP headquarters were in New York City, it was seen as an outside or northerner organization attempting to disrupt southern society. Baker felt it was important the local NAACP branches focussed on local concerns. To optimize her effectiveness, Ella spoke to groups rather than individuals, soliciting time at the end of a church services. Since her goal was recruitment and participation, she realized she had to talk to the people, and not appear to be “lecturing” or “talking down” to them. In the four years she served as a field secretary she helped to increased NAACP membership greatly.
In 1943, Ella became the director of all the local branches for the NAACP across America. Baker was involved in advising and organizing whatever actions were needed to satisfy the membership, from getting a traffic light on the corner, to fighting court battles for voting, creation of jobs, or educational opportunities. Because we worked in this capacity during WWII, while doing her duties for the NAACP, and continuing to travel to branches, she was called upon by the U.S. government to conduct consumer affair research/surveys to see how people were dealing with shortages of food, clothing, shoes, gas, etc. during the war, and how stamp rations were working.
Although married in 1940 to her college sweetheart, T. J. Roberts, Ella personal life was her own, and many people did not even know she was married. He was to become a constant support to her life and work. (As she was really married to her work, they amicably divorced in 1958.) In 1946, Ella left the NAACP because she had adopted her sister’s child, Jackie, and brought her from Littleton to Harlem to live with her and her husband. In 1954, the Supreme Court's decision in Brown, gave the Blacks hope that change was on the horizon. That same year, with niece being older, Baker returned to the NAACP as the first woman president of the NYC branch.
In 1955 Ella was asked by the mayor of New York City to be a member of the Commission on School Integration. After examining all the schools in the city, it delivered a report in 1957. One of the demands encouraged Ella was to allow children to attend schools outside of their own neighborhoods. While she was working on school desegregation in New York City, she also became connected to another struggle earlier that same year in Montgomery, Alabama.
Earlier while working for the NAACP, Baker had attended The Highlander Folk School in Tennessee several times. This was a school to train social activists. At these workshops, where she was an instructor, as well as a student, she met Rosa Parks. Baker knew Parks very well, particularly from her many travels to Montgomery. Rosa Parks, a NAACP member, had already challenged several segregation laws in Montgomery. The Montgomery bus boycott which started in December of 1955 propelled a new young minister in town, Martin Luther King, Jr., into the national spotlight. To sustain the boycott that lasted over a year, many support groups were formed. Ella Baker created one in NYC called In Friendship with A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and lawyer Stanley Levinson. This organization allowed Ella Baker many opportunities to speak with Dr. King. Later she would remind people that. “the movement made Martin, Martin didn't make the movement.”
After the boycott, Baker talked to Dr. King about starting a movement that would fight for the rights of African Americans throughout the South. This organization would have to be a southern one so that its members wouldn’t be labeled “northern troublemakers or agitators.” While MLK initially thought that people needed a respite after their victory, Ella Baker disagreed and persisted. After convincing him, a meeting was called in Atlanta, Georgia in January, 1957. Out of this gathering of southern Black organizations, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) was born, and King became its president.