Eartha Mary Magdalene White, a prominent African-American resident of Jacksonville, Florida, was widely known for her humanitarian and philanthropic endeavors in northeast Florida. Born on November 8, 1876, and reared by her adoptive, altruistic mother, Clara English White, Eartha White displayed a lifelong commitment to helping others. Her adoptive father, Lafayette, left little influence on her life as he died in 1881, five years after her birth. After the death of her husband, Clara White, the daughter of two former slaves, was left with the necessity of supporting her daughter and herself through work as a maid and later as a hotel and steamboat stewardess. A pious woman and fervent humanitarian, Clara White was a prime role model, and mother and daughter became a deeply committed team in their unflagging dedication to helping others. Indeed, Eartha White later embraced her mother's motto as her own: "Do all the good you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, for all the people you can, while you can."
In 1893, upon graduation from Stanton School in Jacksonville, Eartha White moved to New York City for a brief period, to avoid a yellow fever quarantine in Jacksonville. She attended the Madam Hall Beauty School and the National Conservatory of Music. The latter affiliation led to a job with the Oriental American Opera Company, called the first African-American opera company in the United States. A lyric soprano, she sang under the direction of J. Rosamond Johnson (brother of James Weldon Johnson), and in the company of musical luminaries of the time such as Madam Plato and Sidney Woodward. After a highly successful opening on Broadway in New York City, the troupe traveled widely for a year throughout the United States and Europe.
Upon returning to Florida in 1896, she decided to continue her education and subsequently graduated from Florida Baptist Academy. With degree in hand, she embarked on a sixteen-year teaching career in Bayard, Florida, and later at Stanton School in Jacksonville.
At the same time, Miss White also displayed considerable business acumen, as evidenced by her various entrepreneurial endeavors, including the ownership of a dry goods store, an employment and housecleaning bureau, a taxi company, and a steam laundry with the catchy motto: "Put your duds in our suds, we wash anything but a dirty conscience." Her versatility and determination also enabled her to become a licensed real estate broker, the first woman employee of the Afro-American Life Insurance Company in Jacksonville, and a charter member of the National Negro Business League and Jacksonville Business League. Due to her numerous businesses and astute real estate transactions, it is estimated that she accumulated over one million dollars in assets throughout her lifetime. According to Dr. Daniel Schafer, biographer of Eartha White, she donated most of these profits from private investments to finance her humanitarian works and, as a consequence, struggled financially throughout her life.
Her work and influence also extended to political activities, through her participation in the Republican Party and her formation of the Colored Citizens Protective League in Jacksonville. In 1941, she joined with A. Philip Randolph to protest job discrimination. But, it was particularly in her later years that she became an influential force whom Jacksonville politicians consulted on diverse issues and who routinely granted her social welfare requests. To wit, former Jacksonville mayor Hans Tanzler was quoted, in a 1982 Florida Times-Union article, "At least once a month she'd come to my office at City Hall. She was irrepressible and undeniable. She could not be denied. She only came up to my waist but she'd point that little finger at me and she'd tell me, `God has chosen you and you must do this, that and the other thing.' "
As admirable as Eartha White's diverse educational and business activities may have been, her enduring legacy continues to be focused on her social welfare work and zeal for helping the underprivileged. Her accomplishments in this arena are astounding: extensive social work with prison inmates, the establishment of an orphanage for African-American children, a home for unwed mothers, a nursery for children of working mothers, a tuberculosis rest home, a nursing home for elderly African-Americans (1902), the Boys' Improvement Club (1904), and the Clara White Mission for the Indigent (1928). A major achievement and fulfillment of a lifelong dream was the dedication of the Eartha M. M. White Nursing Home in 1967 to replace the Mercy Hospital for the Aged. To assure its construction, she doggedly pursued and was approved for a $300,000 loan.
Her development of the Clara White Mission in particular encapsulates her commitment to humanity. The Mission began in the 1880's under the informal tutelage of Clara White and primarily consisted of a soup kitchen to feed the needy. In 1932, during the depression years, Eartha White recognized the need for a larger facility to feed, shelter, and counsel the homeless. With the help of friends, she moved the mission into its present building on Ashley Street in downtown Jacksonville. In 1944, a fire destroyed much of the building but, with her customary resolve, Miss White raised the funding to rebuild and even expand the original structure. In addition to community services the mission served several other functions during the ensuing years before her death: Works Progress Administration office, orphanage, and a home for unwed mothers.
Indeed the heartbeat of the Mission, she lived on its second floor until her later years. Many notable figures, such as James Weldon Johnson, Booker T. Washington, Mary McCleod Bethune and Eleanor Roosevelt visited her at the Mission. Interestingly enough, the Clara White Mission, in addition to its many other social and civic services, is still noted for being the only non-profit organization serving daily mid-day meals to the needy in Jacksonville.
Aptly nicknamed the "Angel of Mercy", friends recall her countless acts of charity. She was often called to aid traveling families who had broken down on Jacksonville roads. Her work with Duval County Stockade inmates was legendary: for more than forty years, she visited them in jail, arranged for religious and social activities, and provided counseling and other personal services for them. During World War I and II, her many patriotic activities included intensive work with the Red Cross to aid both soldiers and their families. Showing her less serious if not downright athletic side, the ubiquitous Miss White organized a baseball team during World War II to entertain troops at Camp Blanding.
All these activities left little time for a private life. By her own words, "I never married. I was too busy - What man would put up with me running around the way I do?" According to Charles E. Bennett, author of Twelve On The River St. Johns, she was briefly engaged, at age 20, to James Jordan, a railroad employee from South Carolina. Letters from the collection attest to their love for each other but, unfortunately, he tragically died a month before their impending marriage in June 1896.
As to be expected, awards and honors were numerous towards the end of her life. In 1970, at the age of ninety-four, she received national recognition by being named the recipient of the 1970 Lane Bryant Award for Volunteer Service. Not stopping there, in 1971, the indefatigable Miss White was appointed to the President's National Center for Voluntary Action. After a reception at the White House with President Nixon, she quite characteristically responded to the question of how she would spend the cash award, "I've already decided I want it to serve humanity. What would I do with it? Sit around the Plaza Hotel? I'm too busy."
Eartha White died of heart failure at age ninety-seven on January 18, 1974.
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