Eartha Mary Magdalene White, born near Jacksonville, Florida, 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 and her mother Clara White circa 1910 (left). Eartha circa 1896 (right). (State Archives of Florida)
Eartha M.M. 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 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 M.M. White with Margaret Murray Washington with the Women’s of 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.
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 black orphanage for year 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 employees at her Service Laundry Company. (University of North Florida Digital Commons)