White, Eartha M. (1876–1974)

views updated

White, Eartha M. (1876–1974)

African-American entrepreneur who was a major philanthropist in her hometown of Jacksonville, Florida . Name variations: Eartha White; Eartha Mary Magdalene White; Eartha M.M. White. Born in Jacksonville, Florida, on November 8, 1876; died in Jacksonville on January 18, 1974; daughter of Molly (or Mollie) Chapman (a former slave) and a white father, name unknown; adopted as an infant by Lafayette White and Clara (English) White; attended Stanton School in Jacksonville and Dr. Reason's School in New York City; studied hairdressing and manicuring at Madam Hall's School in New York City; attended Madam Thurber's National Conservatory of Music; attended Florida Baptist Academy, 1896–98; never married; no children.

Eartha M. White was born on November 8, 1876, in Jacksonville, Florida, to a mother who had been a slave and who never revealed the name of her baby's father, a young man from a "good" white family. She was soon adopted by Lafayette White, a former slave who had fought in the Civil War, and Clara English White . The devout and charitable daughter of freed slaves, Clara worked on steamships as a domestic and cook, and after Lafayette's death in 1881 raised young Eartha on her own. The two would remain close throughout the remainder of Clara's life, and her mother's example of consistent charity to the needy (she frequently gave meals to the poor) proved a lasting influence on Eartha.

White's education at Stanton School in Jacksonville was interrupted in 1888 by a yellow fever epidemic, which caused Clara to move with her daughter to New York City. There White attended Dr. Reason's School before transferring to Madam Hall's School to study hairdressing and manicuring. Later she attended Madam Thurber's National Conservatory of Music, where Harry T. Burleigh conducted her voice lessons. In 1895, she accepted an invitation to join the Oriental-American Company, one of the nation's first opera companies comprised entirely of African-Americans, and embarked on a world tour. During this time she became engaged to a young Southerner named James Lloyd Jordan, but he died a month before their planned wedding. Grief stricken, White gave up her singing career and returned to Jacksonville, where she spent the rest of her life unmarried.

After furthering her education at the Florida Baptist Academy from 1896 to 1898, White took a teaching post at her alma mater, Stanton School, while also working as a secretary for the Afro-American Life Insurance Company. Having saved $150 from her teacher's salary, in 1904 she opened a department store aimed at African-American consumers. The store was the first of numerous entrepreneurial successes, and over the next 25 years White bought a variety of small businesses in succession, including an employment agency, a dry-goods store, a steam laundry, a general store, a janitorial service, and a real-estate business. After working to make the business profitable, she typically would sell it and use the proceeds to buy another. In this way, she gradually built up an investment portfolio worth more than $1 million.

White never lived lavishly, however, and used her considerable business profits and skills to create a network of philanthropic organizations and institutions. The first black social worker and census taker in Jacksonville, she was also a tireless advocate of education and of social improvement, working for children, the elderly, the business community, the poor, and for African-Americans in general. In 1900, she became a charter member of Booker T. Washington's National Negro Business League (of which she long served as official historian), believing as did he that the best way to eradicate racism was to improve the education and business standing of the African-American community. That philosophy continually came to bear in White's numerous philanthropic interests. For years she operated the sole orphanage for black children in north Florida. In 1904, after the failure of an effort to recruit funding for a recreational center for at-risk boys, she began using her own money to staff and run such a center, on land donated by a friend; 12 years later, the city council finally took over responsibility for the center. White also volunteered at the county prison for over 50 years, conducting Sunday Bible classes and working for better conditions for inmates.

During World War I, White served as coordinator of recreational services for soldiers in Savannah, Georgia. She was also the only woman member of the Southeast War Camp Community Service, held in Jacksonville, in her position as director of the War Camp Community Services, and the only black woman to attend a White House meeting of the Council of National Defense. A moderate Republican, she worked in local Republican politics and in 1920 became the head of the Negro Republican Women Voters. During World War II she was active in the Red Cross and was named an honorary colonel in the Women's National Defense Program. A planned march on Washington, D.C., to protest racism and job discrimination in war employment that she organized with A. Philip Randolph in 1941 never materialized, but the idea itself had far-reaching consequences. The organization of the march led President Franklin D. Roosevelt to issue Executive Order 8802, which established the Fair Employment Practices Committee and banned discrimination in the federal government and in employment in defense industries.

However, White remains best known for her philanthropic work, including a rest home for tuberculosis patients, the Harriet Beecher Stowe Community Center, a child placement center, and a home for unmarried pregnant women. In 1928, eight years after her mother died, she established the Clara White Mission in her honor. White lived for years on the second floor of the mission, which provided shelter and sustenance for the homeless and needy. Its services became even more important during the Depression; in 1932, she moved the mission to a larger building, and in February of the following year it fed over 2,500 people. The building also provided space for a Works Progress Administration office as well as various community services, and became a destination for a number of famous figures: among those who traveled there to meet with White were Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary McLeod Bethune . Rebuilt by White after a fire in 1944, the Clara White Mission is now a historic landmark, a homeless center and soup kitchen (the only non-profit soup kitchen in Jacksonville) as well as a museum of African-American history in the city. However, White was proudest of another project, the Eartha M. White Nursing Home, which she began with her own money. Completed in 1967 with federal funds, the home provided 120 beds for county and state welfare patients as well as occupational and physical therapy.

White lived to be 97, enjoying a busy and productive life almost to the end despite having to use a wheelchair after breaking her hip. She received numerous civic awards for her philanthropy, including the Good Citizenship Award from the local Jaycees (1969), the Lane Bryant Volunteer Award (1970), the American Nursing Home Association Better Life Award (1971), and an appointment to the President's National Center for Voluntary Action, for which she was honored at a White House reception (1971). Always believing that "service is the price we pay for the space we occupy on this planet," she died of heart failure on January 18, 1974, with her debt paid in full.


Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green, eds. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1980.

Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.


White's papers are held in the Eartha M.M. White Collection in the library of the University of North Florida and at the Clara White Mission, both in Jacksonville, Florida.

Linda S. Walton , freelance writer, Grosse Pointe Shores, Michigan

About this article

White, Eartha M. (1876–1974)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article