JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The driving force behind the Clara White Mission on West Ashley Street in Jacksonville’s historic LaVilla neighborhood is a woman whose name you won’t see plastered outside of a building or in most history books. Eartha Mary Magdalene White founded the mission in 1904.
A walk upstairs to the second floor of the community development center takes visitors back more than 100 years, revealing a glimpse into Victorian Jacksonville and into the home of Eartha White.
"You get a chance to go into her bedroom,” said Ju’Coby Pittman, the mission, current CEO and President. “I don't know when she slept, she was 24/7. And what I want you to notice about her bedroom is it's much smaller than her guest bedroom."
White’s bedroom is a small space. Her restored living quarters is furnished with oak standing the test of time.
"On the first floor, she was able to develop her humanitarian initiatives. She lived on the second floor and on the third floor she leased a lot of the offices out," Pittman said.
Eartha, whose biological mother was black and father, white, was adopted and raised by a former slave by the name of Clara White. A Jacksonville native, Eartha went to the Stanton School and graduated in 1893. She later traveled around the world with an opera company and returned to Jacksonville after receiving the news that her fiance died. White then dedicated her time and efforts to humanitarian work.
She opened the Clara White Mission and named it after her mother whose motto she lived by: "Do all the good you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, for all the people you can, while you can."
"She didn't want credit,” Pittman said. “She was sort of like the Mother Teresa of Jacksonville. And the only black woman at that time who could go between the black and white communities to get things done."
White was a renaissance woman in the early 1900s. She started an orphanage, a senior living facility, a minor league baseball team, a park, owned a laundromat and turned it into a training facility. She ran the national business league in Jacksonville, started a tuberculosis hospital and was one of the founding members of the Jacksonville Humane Society and the Jacksonville Historical Society. If there was a need in the city to be met, she found a solution.
“She was recognized by President Roosevelt and she also knew Eleanor Roosevelt who was very involved with the women’s settlement movement,” Pittman said. "She was recognized by President Nixon.”
Pittman for nearly a quarter century has worked to keep White's mission in focus, feeding the city's homeless, training men and women for the work force and inserting hope in places once void of faith.
White's original bible, its tattered pages still sits neatly on a doily on her dining room table, binding the past to the present.
"It's amazing how one person can make a difference and she did,” Pittman said. “She walked the walk and talked the talk and she was contagious."
To learn more about Eartha White’s life and legacy or for museum information visit http://theclarawhitemission.org/explore/museum/