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Famous & Historical Women™: Eartha Mary Magdalene White

Famous & Historical Women™ is a series of occasional pieces celebrating women’s histories and Women’s History Month from a woman’s perspective.

Eartha Mary Magdalene White was a staunch Republican – conservative, proper, careful with money, hawkish.
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

No one was more surprised than Your Examiner to find the many famous Florida women in history that she’s written about.

Who would have thought, for instance, that one of the major artists of the Harlem Renaissance, Augusta Fells Savage, was born in Green Cove Springs and went on to study sculpture in Paris and New York.

Savage exhibited her work at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, and more of her pieces are part of the permanent collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.

Previously Savage had directed the Harlem Arts & Community Center (funded by the WPA) at the height of the Harlem Renaissance in New York City.

Considered one of the earliest Civil Rights workers, she was more than just a passing acquaintance of James Weldon Johnson and his brother Rosamund, composers of ‘Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing’ and Jacksonville natives themselves.

Just a little digging in the State Archives of Florida reveals more and more famous women who have claimed Florida as home.

Another Florida girl makes good

Another such is Eartha Mary Magdalene White.

White was born the 13th child of a freed slave right here in Jacksonville on Nov. 8, 1876.

White’s early life reads like a novel of manners.

Before the age of five, she was adopted by Lafayette and former slave and renowned altruist Clara English White.

Brought up in an educated family, White began her formal education at the Stanton School, now Stanton College Preparatory School, opened in the 1860s and named for Edwin McMasters Stanton, President Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of War, known for his strong stand on human rights and as an advocate of free formal education for black children.

A full-service school offering education from the elementary grades through high school, Stanton still is known nationwide for the quality of its students and their principals, one of whom was James Weldon Johnson. Stanton is Duval county’s first magnet school and went on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.

From the earliest days, White’s education was nothing if not rigorous and mostly classical.

After her graduation from the Stanton School, White moved to New York City to attend the Madam Hall Beauty School and the National Conservatory of Music of America.

A lyric soprano, White sang under the direction of Rosamund Johnson (Like Augusta Savage, White knew both Johnson brothers.) then sang professionally with the Oriental American Opera company, performed on Broadway and traveled throughout the United States and Europe.

Life begins at 20

In 1896, at about age 20, White returned to Jacksonville and promptly graduated from the Florida Baptist Academy, where Rosamund Johnson, a faculty member, and his brother James Weldon Johnson wrote “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.”

It was White’s intention to build the first public school for black children in teeny tiny Bayard, Fla., about eight miles east of Mandarin in Duval county.

Already social activist with a full plate, White remained single and lived frugally, the better to spend her money on her projects.

When local educators and other politicians learned that White had been assigned to the new school, they persuaded her to donate land and lumber.

And so for 16 years, White taught in her very own public school as well as at Stanton.

And played some very hard politics.

Black and white

Eartha Mary Magdalene White was a staunch Republican – conservative, proper, careful with money, hawkish.

For a young black woman at the turn of the 20th century in the Jim Crow South, even in Florida where it has always taken all kinds of people to make us work, it cannot have been easy.

Imagine what it must have been like for her – educated, religious, cultured, accomplished, traveled – to have entered restaurants through the “colored” entrance, to have separate hotels, bathrooms, water fountains and so on.

White started the Colored Citizens Protective League.

Campaign for equal rights she did as well, and not just in protest, and this she did in sight of some very influential people – Booker T. Washington, A. Philip Randolph, Mary McLeod Bethune and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Of her former Jacksonville mayor Hans Tanzler said in a 1982 Florida Times-Union article, "She was irrepressible and undeniable. . . . 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.’ "

On a mission

White came into her own as a crusader, working to improve living and working conditions for all people.

There was no better place to practice the politics of change than in Jacksonville:

  • Here White worked to end job discrimination with A. Philip Randolph.
  • She built Oakland Park, the first public park in Jacksonville for black people.
  • She established the Boy’s Improvement Club to help reduce delinquency among black teenagers.
  • She started a prison mission to help released prisoners re-enter society, a halfway house for alcoholics in recovery, and Mercy Hospital sanitarium for the treatment of tuberculosis.
  • She established a home for unwed mothers, a nursery for working mothers, an orphanage and an adoption agency.

The Clara White Mission

White’s mission work is considered her greatest contribution to Jacksonville.

Joining her mother the former slave, in 1904 White helped establish the Clara White Mission, built on a long-standing tradition in their family dating back to the 1880s when they fed hungry neighbors from their home.

After her mother’s death in 1920, White continued the work of the mission and improve its services.

No accident that by the Great Depression, the operation had grown so large that White had to move it to a new building. The Mission promptly became the city’s largest employer of black people.

A conservator by nature, she bought the old Globe Theatre Building on W. Ashley Street, and dedicated it as the Clara White Mission (CWM) in her mother’s memory.

At one time, the CWM was the only non-profit serving daily meals to the needy in Jacksonville. This and much other hard work brought Eleanor Roosevelt for a visit to the CWM.

Today, the Mission at 613 W. Ashley St. helps feed over 10,000 homeless men, women and children every year and provides a community center, stimulating economic development through educational programs (with a 90% graduation rate), daily feedings, advancement and more.

The Clara White Mission is also Jacksonville's only veteran Drop-In Day Center for support and services for homeless veterans.

A little bit of fame goes a long way

To have lived so publicly later in life, White must have missed the stage.

Certainly she spent her share of time in the limelight:

  • In 1970 she was awarded the Lane Bryant Award for Volunteer Service.
  • In 1971 President Richard M. Nixon appointed White to the President's National Center for Voluntary Action.
  • Florida Governor Reubin Askew honored her at age 95 as “Florida’s Outstanding Senior Citizen.”
  • She was designated a Great Floridian by the Florida Department of State in the Great Floridians 2000 Program. Her plaque is located at the Clara White Mission.

Located on the second floor of the original Clara White Mission building in downtown Jacksonville, you’ll find the the Eartha M. M. White Memorial Art & Historical Resource Center

Dedicated on Dec. 17, 1978, it contains most of White’s personal possessions, furniture and objets d’art.



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OFFICIAL BIO: K Truitt is a second-generation, native Floridian born in Jacksonville. Truitt worked in public higher education for 25 years and knows newspaper publishing, printing and graphic design. Contact:

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