JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – As Jacksonville celebrates 200 years of history, we are remembering some of the city’s most influential people.
One of them was Eartha M.M. White.
Born just 10 years after the Civil War, she was a woman ahead of her time.
Eartha M.M. White was born in 1876. At the time, Jacksonville was a young 54-year-old city and the Reconstruction era after the Civil War was coming to an end.
White and her adoptive mother, Clara White, a former slave, would transform downtown Jacksonville through philanthropy and advocacy for decades.
Adonnica Toler, executive director of the Eartha M.M. White Museum, explained how the mother-daughter duo did it.
“Clara White’s legacy started feeding people out of her home. Clara had been a slave and at the end of slavery she noticed that people in her neighborhood were hungry, so she fed them out of her home and Eartha White, her adoptive daughter, saw her do this work,” Toler said.
The history of Eartha White and her mother is held inside a Jacksonville building that was once a theater built in 1917 for African Americans. It’s now known as The Clara White Mission.
Just past the front entrance and up the elevator is the Eartha M.M. White Museum. A typewriter, ledger and telephone lie beside the original chairs that White would have used as she read and planned her day running multiple businesses.
“She’s serving the poor while she’s having her cleaners. She had a taxi service. She had a department store a grocery store. She had an adoption agency. She had an employment agency,” said Toler.
At the core of her work, White was always giving back to the community. One photo shows the first home for seniors in Jacksonville called “The Old Folks” home.
But as Jacksonville moved into the 20th century, it was met with devastation: The Great Fire of 1901.
Three years later, the Clara White Mission was founded, helping many who had lost everything.
In the meantime, other groups were flourishing in their own way just footsteps away from the Clara White Mission.
LaVilla, which became part of Jacksonville in 1887, was helping the city grow. Some original LaVilla buildings, like a Masonic temple, still remain.
“That building was really important. It was the crown jewel for the Black community in the state especially in the Masonic order,” said Toler.
LaVilla was an epicenter for Black culture. Toler said records show there were at least 700 to 1,000 African Americans involved in politics after the Civil War. That led to many organized groups such as the Black Masons and Eastern Stars, led in part by Daniel Webster Perkins.
Another fighter for equality, A Philip Randolph, was born in 1889.
“A. Philip Randolph, who grew Outeast -- or the Eastside -- he was from Crescent City but he graduated from Edward Waters College. He went on to become a major civil rights leader and union leader,” Toler said. “A. Philip Randolph established the first long running labor union to support the Black community, nationally -- Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.”
In fact, he and Eartha White were among the civil rights movement leaders before the peak of the movement in the 1960s.
“Eartha White and A. Philip Randolph were key in forcing Franklin D. Roosevelt to hire Black people in the federal jobs during the Depression and World War II because Blacks were not getting those jobs,” Toler said. “A Philip Randolph threatened to protest and Franklin did not want that to happen, so he put in an order to hire Black citizens.”
Fast forward to 2022, and it’s easy to see how the actions of a few have made a major contribution to Jacksonville and its history.
The Clara White Mission remains on Ashley Street and has helped thousands in the community, including through its White Harvest Farms effort to combat food deserts.