Florida Women Who Have Made History: Eartha White
Updated: Mar 20
by Sarah Virginia Dimitrascu. Originally appeared in the The Jaxson.
Eartha and her mother Clara White circa 1910 (left). Eartha circa 1896 (right). (State Archives of Florida)
Eartha Mary Magdalene White, born near Jacksonville, on November 8th, 1876, was one of Northeast Florida’s most widely known philanthropists and humanitarians. White was the thirteenth child of two former slaves, and when her biological parents died, White was adopted by Lafayette and Clara English White, who had been formerly enslaved themselves. White’s adoptive father had fought in the Civil War and later worked as a laborer and wagon driver; dying just 5 years after White’s birth, he left her with little to remember.
After Lafayette’s death, White’s adoptive mother was left with the responsibility of caring for her daughter and took on work, first as a maid, and later as a stewardess in hotels and steamboats. It was from her mother, who frequently gave meals to the poor and believed in charity, that Eartha White learned the virtue of a giving spirit. Eartha’s own legacy would be one of great humanity towards Jacksonville’s poor and vulnerable.
Eartha’s own legacy would be one of great humanity towards Jacksonville’s poor and vulnerable.
Eartha White attended Stanton School in Jacksonville until 1893, when she moved to New York City to escape Jacksonville’s raging yellow fever epidemic. Here, she attended the Madam Hall Beauty School and the National Conservatory of Music. White’s musical education later led her to a job with the Oriental American Opera Company, where she sang under the tutelage of J. Rosamond Johnson, brother to Jacksonville’s James Weldon Johnson.
White traveled throughout Europe and the United States with this troupe for about a year. It was at this time that White met James Lloyd Jordan and became engaged, but after Lloyd’s death a month before he and White’s wedding, White left her singing career and remained unmarried for the rest of her life.
Eartha White with Margaret Murray Washington with the City Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs in front of Bethel Baptist Institutional Church in 1925. (University of North Florida Digital Commons)
White returned to Florida in 1896 and graduated from the Florida Baptist Academy with an education degree that launched a 16-year long teaching career. White would teach in Bayard, Florida (where she advocated for the community’s first African-American public school), as well as her own former Stanton School, now known as Stanton College Preparatory School.
In addition to teaching, White showed great competency for business and entrepreneurship. She opened up her own department store in 1904 with money saved from her teaching career, and she would later go on to buy other small businesses like a dry-goods store, an employment agency and housecleaning bureau, a real-estate business, taxi company, and steam laundry. Buying and selling her companies after they’d amassed enough profit, White eventually garnered assets worth more than $1 million. The majority of these she donated towards her humanitarian projects, opting to live humbly herself.
Eartha White alongside employees at her Service Laundry Company. (University of North Florida Digital Commons)
An active member of Jacksonville’s Black community, White was involved in all walks political, educational and humanitarian. She was the first woman to work for the Afro-American Life Insurance Company, and she also participated in Booker T. Washington’s National Negro Business League as a charter member, advocating for education and business as a way to uplift African Americans. She operated North Florida’s single African American orphanage for years and used her own money to run a center for at-risk boys after failing to gather enough funding from other sources.
She served as a recreational service coordinator in Savannah, Georgia throughout WWI and became the only black woman to attend a White House meeting of the Council of National Defense. She was equally active through WWII, when she aided the Red Cross and received honors from the Women’s National Defense Program. White helped form Jacksonville’s Colored Citizens Protective League and in 1941 she protested job discrimination alongside A. Philip Randolph.
Eartha White alongside residents of the Clara White Old Folks Home, later the Eartha White Nursing Home. (University of North Florida Digital Commons)
Nicknamed the “Angel of Mercy,” White is most widely celebrated for her social welfare work. Throughout her lifetime, she worked with prison inmates, established a home for unwed mothers and a nursery for working ones. In 1928, White founded the Clara White Mission in honor of her mother, who had died in 1920. The White Mission really began informally in the 1880s when White and her mother would volunteer in soup kitchens together, but it was during The Great Depression that White recognized the wave of poverty eating away at her community. Moving the Mission to its current Downtown Ashley Street location, White and her friends worked devotedly for the sake of Jacksonville’s poor, feeding over 2,500 people in February of 1933.
Eartha White will be remembered for her fight: as a philanthropist, as an African American woman and as an endlessly giving soul.
Known for her charitable efforts, White’s Mission was visited by notable figures such as James Weldon Johnson, Booker T. Washington, Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary McLeod Bethune. One of White’s proudest accomplishments, the Eartha M. White Nursing Home was completed in 1967 with federal funds and offered 120 beds for the state’s welfare patients.
1947 dedication ceremony of Clara White Mission. (University of North Florida Digital Commons)
White died on January 18th, 1974, having given her community far more than it had ever asked for. A true angel of mercy, devoted teacher, patriot, activist, intelligent businesswoman and exemplary citizen, White took her mother’s teachings and practiced them everywhere her life could reach. She received numerous awards and honors for her philanthropy, including the Lane Bryan Volunteer Award, an appointment to the President’s National Center for Voluntary Action (for which she attended a White House reception held by President Nixon), and in 2000, White was named a Great Floridian by the Florida Department of State. Today, White’s records, including personal letters, business plans and more are housed at the University of North Florida, who also works on editing the Eartha M.M. White Collection. White’s legacy is one that lives on through these physical gestures and awards, but most importantly, it is her service that runs deep through Jacksonville’s memory and roots. Eartha White will be remembered for her fight: as a philanthropist, as an African American woman and as an endlessly giving soul.
White in her later years. (University of North Florida Digital Commons)