The Eartha M. M. White Historical Museum
The Museum is a continuing memorial to both Clara White and her daughter, Dr. Eartha White. The remarkable lives and careers of these two women can be experienced through the following virtual walking tour of the museum.
Sleeping was not a priority for Eartha White, attested to by the small space she reserved for it. Her executive assistant, best friend and subsequent Executive Director of the Mission, Grayce Bateman (pictured on the bureau), said that Miss White never went to bed before “Johnny Carson” was over, was up at 5:00 a.m. each day, and by 7:00 a.m. was asking, “Grayce isn’t here yet?”
The furnishings in these living quarters were given to Eartha and Clara over the years. In 1978, many of the pieces were restored through a HUD grant. Students in the vocational-training program of what is today Florida State College at Jacksonville completed the work. All of the furniture in Miss White’s room dates from the Victorian period. The bed is oak, the dresser tiger oak, and the rocker is mahogany.
For more than forty years, this small kitchen generated all the meals served at the Mission. Until an elevator was added to the building in the mid-1950s, the thousands of meals served were carried down the stairs. It was in the 1970s that a kitchen finally replaced the stage adjacent to the downstairs dining room.
The most striking feature of the guest room is its spaciousness in comparison to Miss White’s own room, reflecting her constant devotion to the care and comfort of others. Eartha White had many well-known and influential friends who were visitors to this room over the years, including Mr. and Mrs. Booker T. Washington, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, James Weldon Johnson and his brother John Rosamond Johnson, and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
The bed frame is solid brass, circa 1900, and the empire-style dressing table is circa 1890. The marble-topped walnut dresser is the oldest piece in the room, dating from 1870. The Sheraton-style mahogany rocker retains its original caning and was produced around 1900.
From the window are visible remnants of LaVilla’s jazz heyday, when Ashley Street boasted a colonnade of fine hotels, clubs and theatres, and was regular host to such entertainers as Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald.
On the corner of Ashley and Jefferson Streets, visible from the guest room’s window, stands the old Wynn Hotel & Lenape Tavern. Though most of the big-name entertainers favored the elegant Richmond Hotel on Broad Street (Deloach Furniture), the Wynn was the hotel of preference for Louis Armstrong because it was “on the street” where, he said, “everything was happening”.
The iron horse-hitching posts still in place at the curb became known as the “rails of hope” during the Depression, as out-of-work musicians leaned on them hoping to get a job with the bands playing in the downstairs tavern. One such hopeful, a very young Ray Charles, lived just around the corner on Church Street, and was a frequent visitor to the Wynn, as was another soon to be famous entertainer, James Brown.
Miss White adored dining with friends. Not only did this room witness many pleasant meals, but also acted as a training room for young ladies enrolled in her domestic-instruction program.
The items in the cabinets belonged to Miss White and date from various periods. Among them are one of her heavy irons, some of the sweet Warwick china with animals and clowns thought to have been used in her orphanage, and an elegant domed butter dish of pattern glass.
After Miss White passed away, many of her furnishings and personal possessions were stored in the cottage she had built on Moncrief Road. The house was repeatedly burglarized, and many of the items were stolen or vandalized. In 1978, a HUD grant allowed the Mission to restore the remaining pieces. When it was discovered that the chairs to the dining table were missing, Bethel Baptist Institutional Church, where Miss White had been a life-long member, donated these six oak chairs to complete the set.
The lives of Clara and Eartha White were interwoven with Bethel Baptist Institutional Church for nearly 150 years. Clara White was a founding member of Bethel, but the membership split into two congregations—Bethel and what would become First Baptist Church, in 1868.
In 1932, when Eartha White applied for a loan to purchase the Globe Theatre Building, she was already in her fifties and nationally known. Bank officials graciously expedited her paperwork, but when Ms. White returned to sign the contract, she was told her husband would need to sign in her place. Informed that she was unmarried, the bankers instructed her to obtain the signature of “a responsible male party,” meaning a man employed. Acquainted with presidents, congressmen, mayors and a host of prominent and influential individuals, Eartha White went immediately to Bethel Baptist Church, where she asked Mr. William Bryant, the church’s janitor, to sign for her. The contract was duly processed.
E. L. Weems was the first licensed black photographer in Jacksonville. A native of McDonough, Georgia, Mr. Weems opened his first studio in Jacksonville on Broad Street in 1929, later relocating to Bay Street. In 1943, he purchased the large home pictured above the dining room door. Its address was 434 West Beaver Street, and he used it as both his studio and residence. Completed in 1902, the house was designed and built by black contractors for Mr. McClendon, the city’s only black realtor at that time.
The “Photos by Weems” sign seen in the photo is a part of this exhibit. Mr. Weems enjoyed a long and very successful career in Jacksonville and remained here until his retirement in 1981. This collection of Mr. Weems’s work is displayed through the kind permission of Mrs. Camilla P. Thompson.
The Parlor hosted many activities and community meetings over the years. Every Thursday, Miss White held chapel services here. It was also a regular rehearsal site for old Stanton’s chorus and band. Moving clockwise from your immediate left along the south wall are a number of items of interest.
An opera singer as a young woman, Eartha White’s love of music was always in evidence. She offered instruction in voice and piano, and was always willing to perform. She collected instruments, including the violin, viola and harp guitar displayed in the Victorian bookcase. The walnut pump organ (west wall) was a gift from a member of Duke Ellington’s Band.
Ms. White happened to be in the Afro American Life Insurance offices on the afternoon of May 3, 1901 when the great fire of Jacksonville ignited. Calm and deliberate amid the panic, she commandeered a passerby’s horse and carriage, loaded all the company files and drove them to her house.
The next day, though Afro American Life Insurance was out of an office, it was not out of business, thanks to Eartha White. To demonstrate his gratitude, company president A. L. Lewis sold Ms. White an expansive tract of property at a much-reduced price. Today, Eartha M. M. White Health Care, Inc. and the soon-to-be-renovated Boy’s and Girl’s Club facility stand on that property. A more sentimental gesture was the gift of Mr. Lewis’s walking stick, highly polished, with an intricate alligator design, carved in 1916.
A beautiful pencil sketch of Eartha at age 16, by an unknown artist, was done in 1892. The cabinet-model Victrola, produced in Camden, New Jersey, was one of Miss White’s favorites.
Along the west wall are The Merry Hearts Club placards. This club, established by Eartha White in 1930, was a citywide Christmas party for underprivileged children and adults. Dr. White continued the project until the end of her life.
A charter agency of United Way, then known as Community Chest, the Clara White Mission proudly displays a campaign poster. At the foot of the easel where the poster sits is a wringer that remains from the laundry service (pictured in the hallway) Eartha White operated. Both the “Moncrief” bust and the enormous “Seven Sisters” urn (located on the south wall) were created in the ceramics classes held at the Clara White Mission.
The oak captain’s chair under the window dates from around 1900. Notice the rhinestone eyes set in the lion’s heads. Inside the gilded Louis XVT cabinet are some of Ms. White’s seals, including the Clara White Mission, the Service Laundry Co. and the Union Benevolent Association.
The ballots on the right-hand shelves are from a 1934 board of directors meeting and suggest names for what would ultimately become Mercy Hospital, a tubercular treatment facility for African Americans established by Eartha White. Also from that year is a service report indicating the types and numbers of services provided by the Mission during the month. The teakwood pedestals on either side of the cabinet date from about 1850.
Behind the wheelchair from the “Old Folks Home” is a photo of the Oriental America Opera Company, the first black opera company in the United States. With yellow fever raging through Jacksonville in 1893, Clara White sent her daughter to New York to stay with friends. While there, Eartha enrolled in the National Conservatory of Music, where she auditioned for the opera company. Accepted, she toured with them for a year throughout the United States and in Europe. She is seated in the front row, at left, in the white dress. The company’s director, John Rosamond Johnson, standing at far right, co-wrote, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” with his brother, James Weldon Johnson. His more-famous sibling is seated at left.
Next along the north wall is a photo of the Clara White Mission as it looked in 1932, when Eartha White moved in. Built in 1907 as a hotel, the facility operated as a mercantile and then as a gambling house before becoming the popular Globe Theatre. A victim of the Depression, the Globe had been closed for some time when Eartha White purchased the building. The balconies were removed in 1944, after it was extensively damaged by fire. Renowned architect Henry Klutho ventured briefly from retirement to direct the renovation of the Mission as a personal favor to Eartha White. The building is a designated historical landmark by local ordinance.
The Tiffany lamp of caramel slag glass dates from about 1890 and sits on a side table next to a tinted photographic portrait of Eartha White done by E.L. Weems. At the raised end of the room are Miss White’s Victorian love seat and chairs, refinished in the 1970s. The cabinet to the left displays Eartha’s 1961 honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Edward Waters College. A Polaroid camera and 16nun movie camera, belonging to E.L. Weems, sit on the cabinet’s top. To the right, a Victorian bronze statue stands next to the boulle table (inlaid tortoiseshell and brass) displaying another of Miss White’s Tiffany lamps.
Along the south wall to the right of the entryway stands Clara’s photograph. Eartha’s choice to name the Mission after her mother was no gracious sentimentality. Throughout her life, she credited Clara as the inspiration for her own astounding career.
Clara White’s “mission” began at home with the simple desire to help those in need. Clara never anticipated the numbers of people who would come to her door. As a result, she and daughter Eartha were forced to move several times in an effort to accommodate the crowds. Pictured atop the Victorian bookcase in the corner is 233 Eagle Street, known today as First Street, the last residential setting from which the Whites conducted the “mission work.” Legally organized in 1904, the agency officially became The Clara White Mission in 1928. It moved to its permanent home at 613 West Ashley Street in 1932 and was incorporated four years later.