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Ralph Johnson Bunche was born in Detroit in 1903. He grew up surrounded by a supportive extended family that included his parents, his aunts and uncles and his maternal grandmother, Mrs. Lucy Taylor Johnson, the matriarch of the family.


The Johnsons were a musical family. Ralph's aunts and uncles formed The Johnson Quartette. Ralph's mother, Olive, accompanied the vocalists on the piano.


The family lived in an integrated section of Detroit. In 1914, when they moved to Albuquerque, there were many Native Americans and Mexicans among Ralph's school friends, where he was one of two black students in a class of 36.


Ralph did well in school, but liked to talk, a habit his teacher, Miss Emma Belle Sweet, tried to discourage by making him stand in a corner with his face to the wall or giving him a rap over the knuckles. Bunche credited Miss Sweet's geography lessons for opening up the world to him. Years later, he joined in honoring her with a "Golden Key Award" and a check for $1,000 "for lifetime dedication to children."


Ralph's mother, Olive, wrote poems which were published in the local paper. The money allowed her to take Ralph to the occasional movie.




In October, 1916, unable to find a steady job as a barber, Ralph's father left Albuquerque to look for work. He never returned. His mother's death the following year and the suicide of his favorite uncle, Charlie, brought the first chapter of Ralph's life to a painful close.


His grandmother, Nana, moved the family to Los Angeles to start a new life, where Ralph's Uncle Tom rents a house in a white neighborhood.


 

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