100 Years in the Making
The Clara White Mission was founded in 1904 but traces its origins to 1880s Jacksonville. It was then that former slave Clara English White fed hungry neighbors from her two-room house on Clay Street. Over subsequent years, her daughter, nationally recognized humanitarian Dr. Eartha M. M. White, molded the labor of love into a thriving social agency.
By 1932, the “mission work,” as Eartha and Clara called it, had grown so much that it could no longer be managed in a residential setting. Eartha White obtained the old Globe Theatre Building on West Ashley Street and dedicated it to the memory of her mother.
The Clara White Mission became the base from which Eartha White directed her many activities. In addition to the food program for which the agency remains best known, the facility was home to a variety of projects and programs over the years. During the Great Depression, the Mission served as headquarters for the Works Progress Administration’s (WPA) arts and sewing projects. During the Second World War, soldiers away from home lived on the Mission’s upper floors. Eartha White also provided rooms to released prisoners and the homeless, while she fed, clothed and helped them find jobs. The agency also offered on-site canning, cooking, typing and ceramics classes, in addition to instruction in Braille. After renovations to the facility were completed in 1946, Miss White encouraged local business owners to lease office space on the building’s ground and third floors.
The Clara White Mission was only the first of many projects and programs Eartha White developed over her 97 years. In 1902, Eartha and Clara White founded The Old Folks Home, today it’s Summerbrooke Nursing Home h Care, a 125-bed, $780,000.00 facility, initiated by Eartha at age 89.
Eartha White was also responsible for the establishment of Mercy Hospital, The Boy’s Improvement Club, a home for unwed mothers, an orphanage and adoption agency, a child-care center for working mothers, a halfway house for recovering alcoholics, and a rehabilitation program for released prisoners. She also established the first public park for African Americans, Oakland Park, which she financed for ten years, until the city assumed operations.
In addition to her charitable work, Eartha had careers as an opera singer, a school teacher and an entrepreneur. She operated a laundry company, a mercantile, a restaurant, a janitorial service, a taxi service and an employment bureau. She was Jacksonville’s first woman realtor, the first professional social worker hired by the city, the first black census taker in Florida and the first female employee of the Afro American Life Insurance Company. Eartha White’s charter memberships included the National Business League, the Community Chest (United Way), the Jacksonville Historical Society and the Jacksonville Humane Society.
Eartha White lived on the second floor of the Clara White Mission from 1932 until her death in 1974 at the age of 97. The rooms on the north end of floor were her living quarters; her office suite at the hall’s south end is still used by the Mission staff.
For More Information on the History of Eartha White & Clara White, purchase your copy of Dr. Tim Gilmore recently published Book “In Search of Eartha White, Storehouse for the People”.