As Black History Month comes to a close, I'd like to share a wonderful story about Eartha Mary Magdalene (M.M.) White, a prominent black philanthropist and businesswoman from Jacksonville, Florida. Her life was truly remarkable and her legacy continues today through the Eartha M.M. White Legacy Fund.
Born in 1876, Eartha was the 13th child of two former slaves. She was adopted by Clara White, a woman who lived her life by helping others. In fact, Clara's favorite motto was,"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." Eartha embraced her mother's motto in her own life. She is pictured in the photo (standing) alongside her mother Clara.
In 1893, Eartha moved to New York City to avoid a yellow fever outbreak. There, she attended the National Conservatory of Music, which led to a job with the Oriental American Opera Company, which is known as the first black opera company in the country. Eartha sang soprano under the direction of J. Rosamond Johnson (brother of James Weldon Johnson), and traveled extensively with the company throughout the U.S. and Europe.
When she returned to her hometown of Jacksonville, Eartha, inspired by her mother's motto, began a life of philanthropy that continues today, well after her death in 1974.
She gave back to her community in many ways, as a teacher for 16 years and as an entrepreneur. She owned a taxi cab service, a steam laundry business, an employment and housekeeping bureau, and became the first woman employed at the Afro-American Life Insurance company in Jacksonville. It is estimated that from her various entrepreneurial endeavors, she amassed a net worth in excess of $1 million dollars, most of it used to fund her philanthropic efforts.
Those efforts include the establishment of an orphanage for African-American children, a home for unwed mothers, a nursery for children of working mothers, a tuberculosis rest home, the Boys' Improvement Club (1904) that worked to prevent delinquency, and helping to establish Oak Park, the first public park for African Americans in Jacksonville. Among the most notable of her efforts was the establishment of the Clara White Mission for the Indigent. Named after her mother, the mission fed the needy, and provided a variety of supportive services to Jacksonville's black community, which still exists today as the Clara White Mission.
In 1902, Eartha along with her mother established a nursing home for elderly African Americans, that later became known as Eartha M.M. White Health Care, Inc. In 2005, the assets from the health care company was sold, enabling the Community Foundation of Jacksonville to establish the Eartha M.M. White Legacy Fund, with a 1.4 million dollar endowment. The fund also made history, being the first fund with 1 million dollars in origin for the black community in Jacksonville.
Today, the fund is managed by a twelve member African American board with a mission to advance the state of knowledge and practice of philanthropic giving within the African American community. In the past five years, the fund has granted over $100,000 to support various initiatives in their community.
I learned about Eartha M.M. White and the Legacy Fund from Mr. Howard Taylor, a board member who is also a member of my blog's Linkedin group. He shared, "We want to get community involvement in what we do so that we can establish partnerships in our efforts and expand our program to teach those in need "how to fish." The fund is presently seeking partnerships with community oriented training programs that caters to teens, young adults and the working class.
In 1970, Eartha received a volunteerism award and was appointed to the President's National Center for Voluntary Action by President Nixon. When asked how she would spend her award money, she answered,"I've already decided I want it to serve humanity. What would I do with it? Sit around the Plaza Hotel? I'm too busy."
To learn more about Eartha M.M. White, the University of North Florida has an online exhibition with rare photos, personal stories, documents and other artifacts.
Photo credit: Wikipedia