Name at birth: Ralph Johnson Bunch
Ralph Bunche was the first black American to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded to him in 1950 for his mediation during the founding of the nation of Israel. Born in Detroit, he moved west when he was a young teenager. When he was 13 years old his father left the family, his mother died of tuberculosis and Bunche's grandmother took him to Los Angeles to raise (she also added the "e" to his surname). A 1927 graduate of the University of California at Los Angeles, Bunche studied political science and went on to earn a Master's degree at Harvard in 1928 (he later got his doctorate from Harvard, in 1934). An expert on the effects of European colonialism, Bunche had an academic career as a political science professor at Howard University (1928-50), and was recognized nationally for his work in the late 1930s and early 1940s with Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal. Together they produced An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (1944), the first extensive scholarly study of black Americans. A consultant to the founders of the United Nations, Bunche was appointed in 1948 to be head of their Palestine Commission. He spent nearly a year negotiating the Arab-Israeli conflict and oversaw the transition from British Palestine to an independent Israel with a 1949 peace agreement. His expertise in the Middle East also came in handy in the 1950s and '60s, when he served as the director of U.N. peacekeeping forces in Egypt's Suez region. After 1955 he was an undersecretary at the United Nations, a post he held the rest of his life. A longtime activist in the realm of civil rights, Bunche went from being hailed as a hero in the 1940s and '50s to being unfairly criticized in the '60s as an example of tokenism -- a "good Negro" popularized by whites. Still, his achievements were many and he's remembered as a talented administrator who worked on behalf of improving international relations.
Some sources say Ralph Bunche was born in 1904. According to the library at U.C.L.A., Bunche himself wasn’t so sure and had to press his grandmother to investigate. Confusion over what was written in the family bible (there was no birth certificate) led to his birth year being given as 1904 after about 1940. Earlier school records, however, show it as 1903.