by Tim Gilmore, 2/26/2017, adapted from chapters of In Search of Eartha White, Storehouse for the People
If the goodness, kindness, and mercy enacted in a particular building, on a certain quadrant of earth, can accrue across the years, then the Clara White Mission should be a pilgrimage site and 613 Ashley Street in LaVilla is sacred ground.
LaVilla was dense, full of life, happening, abundant, exuberant. My friend Richard McKissick, who, in 2014, 88 years old, two years before his death, walked me through LaVilla, where he’d grown up, cautioned me against romanticizing the historical cultural vivacity of the neighborhood. LaVilla, he constantly reminded me, did not exist on its own terms because its concentration was the result of segregation.
I’ve always thought of history, however, as cumulative. If you cannot feel the weight of it, you’re not fully alive. To step inside the Clara White Mission, the oldest humanitarian organization in Jacksonville and probably in Florida, and tell yourself the creed of its timeline, is to grow vastly larger by being humbled proportionately.
In the late 1800s, Squire English, descended from the same slave-owning family as Adam English, Clara White’s father, ran a produce market and livery on the site where the Clara White Mission stands today.
Then Frank Crowd, a Boston entertainment promoter and entrepreneur, built the three-story Bijou Theater in 1908, the building that still houses the Mission.
The Bijou showed silent films, including a version of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, and locally shot and produced films by early Jacksonville studios. Vaudeville acts included a contortionist, an acrobat, and George Riley, “the foolish mirth-maker.”
Soon, next door at the corner of West Ashley and Bridge (now Broad), where the Mission would take over the Hollywood Music Store building in 1990s, the Colored Airdome Theater brought fierce competition with tap dancing, “coon shouting,” orchestral ensembles, films, and the minstrel “Two Zulus.” The singing and dancing “Too Sweets” and the comedian “Long Willie” always brought down the house.
A popular song called the “Jacksonville Rounders’ Dance” played in both theaters, though community opposition to the word “rounder,” meaning “pimp,” pushed the songwriter to rechristen it “The Original Black Bottom Dance.” Either way, the dance that accompanied the song was called the “Pimp’s Walk.”
In 1910, head-to-head with the Colored Airdome, the Bijou closed its doors and reopened as the Globe Theater, with expanded seating and orchestra space and a newly organized Globe Stock Company.
That autumn, a minstrel blues musician named Franklin “Baby” Seals played the Globe for two months, singing his original composition of “Shake, Rattle, and Roll,” 44 years before the white rock n’ roll band Bill Haley and the Comets recorded their version.
Entertainers later famous, like the tap dancer Bojangles Robinson and “Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey, then booked as a “coon shouter,” played the Globe. The Globe staged dramatic Vaudeville performances with titles like A Trip to Coontown and musical “farces” like Stranded in Africa.
There’s poisonous irony in the fact that “Jim Crow” was a stock character in Vaudeville blackface acts, a racist stereotype stealing chickens and watermelons—his name best known now as the whole code of racist “Jim Crow laws” the South enacted against black citizens in retribution for its losing the Civil War—and that black audiences supported so many of these “coon” and “Zulu” entertainments.
Frank Crowd became self-reflexive enough in 1914 that he wrote and staged a play at the Globe that featured a black newspaperman dealing with corrupt white politicians “and the duplicity of members of his own race under their influence.”
The play marked a conscientiously different direction for the Globe, a striking rebuke of Booker-T.-Washingtonism, and was attacked resoundingly enough that Crowd soon rebranded the theater the New Globe. But the Globe had begun a steep decline amidst the rise of new venues and theaters along bright and bustling West Ashley.
The Globe lasted for almost two decades, putting on thousands of acts before its demise. After the Globe went out of business, the building was home to a mercantile company, a grocery, a casino, and a hotel. All three floors had balconies that stretched the building’s width.
That’s when Eartha White bought the Globe and turned it into the Mission she named for her adoptive mother.
According to myth, Eartha White was the first of Clara and Lafayette White’s 13 children to live. The preacher and old slave prophet, Father Henry Harrison, who’d live to be, according to which account you believe, 114 or 120 years old, visited Clara while she washed clothes and told her he knew she was pregnant.
She’d told no one, for she’d already lost 12 children. But Harrison told her he knew she was about to have a baby girl and said this baby would live and be a blessing to all her people.
Clara’s father, Adam English, had accompanied Harrison. When Harrison said the baby should be named for the Eartha, for she would become a “storehouse for the people,” Clara’s father argued that the baby should be named Mary Magdalene, the repentant woman of sin who witnessed both the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. So Clara named her 13th child, the first to live, Eartha Mary Magdalene White.
No one told the true story publicly during Eartha’s lifetime. Her father was a wealthy white boy and Confederate scion named Guy Stockton and her mother was the Stockton family’s servant, Mollie Chapman. Mollie gave birth in secret, Guy was sent south to Quincy, Florida, where he died in his late 20s, and Clara and Lafayette White raised Eartha as their own daughter.
For 97 years, Eartha White lived as figurative and even spiritual and existential lynchpin (pun intended, since she worked on anti-lynching legislation) between the polarities of black and white Jacksonville.
Since banks refused to lend Eartha the money—she was black, she was a woman, she wasn’t wealthy—she solicited the funds to build the Clara White Mission in the old Globe.
She’d begun her humanitarian enterprises, including an “Old Folks’ Home,” an orphanage, child placement services, job training, prison ministries, and a tuberculosis hospital, in the soup kitchen she ran with her mother on Eagle Street in Hansontown, now West 1st Street, just behind Bethel Baptist Church.
By the time Eartha White took her Mission to the Globe, she combined her earliest multifaceted Booker T.-esque business and charity enterprises with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, specifically those of the Works Progress Administration, effectively combining black activism with WPA educational and vocational efforts.
In 1933, Charles H. Loeb, a journalist later called “the dean of black newsmen,” wrote that the Mission’s “community center atmosphere is an outgrowth of the regularly held religious meetings, supplemented as they are by meetings of outside groups of young people, social clubs, the Lyceums, Red Cross classes, Domestic Science class, old fashioned quiltings, mass meetings and sewing bees by members of the Needlework Guild, affiliated with the Mission. These activities aid immeasurably in creating for the Mission a social atmosphere that assists in banishing fear of tomorrow from the face of Jacksonville’s unemployed masses.”
Even when a fire destroyed part of the Mission in 1944, Eartha not only contracted Henry John Klutho, the city’s best known architect, to rebuild it, but she continued to live upstairs.
After the reconstruction, Eartha rented space in the building to a dentist, a radio station, a barber, a jeweler, and the regional office of The Pittsburgh Courier, the largest black newspaper in the country.
The Red Cross used the building for health and safety classes. Local black colleges and business institutes held “adult night school classes” here. The Mission operated an employment agency and held a free reading room with more than 500 books.
Every day at noon, the Mission’s workers and volunteers served lunch to the hungry and homeless and gave away old clothes and shoes.
If they had nothing else to do with the Clara White Mission, many of the city’s wealthiest donated money each Christmas for the annual Merry Hearts’ Club celebration. Just as Christmas was the one time of year many wealthy people thought briefly of the poor, it was the time of year the poor were made most aware of their poverty.
Eartha used the funds to buy food and toys for poor and homeless children. The Mission sent volunteers downtown to department stores to ring bells and wear Santa hats and ask for any small donation, any widow’s-mite dropped into their baskets.
And every year Eartha made the city’s poorest feel less alone at the enormous Christmas party she threw.
Clara had shown Eartha all her life how to be the center of a community’s giving, and for 40 years Eartha made and kept her home on the second floor of the Mission she’d named for her mother.
As all roads lead to Rome, 613 West Ashley was Eartha’s Rome and Jerusalem and Mecca, and as Clara had been the center of Eartha’s life, Eartha named the center of the community, to which she now offered herself, for her mother—just as her mother had named her, according to the mythos, for Mother Earth.
Throughout the Great Depression in the 1930s, through desegregation and Civil Rights and “white flight” from the 1950s through the 1970s, and when black business and enterprise and homeownership itself spread to further parts of town in the 1950s through the 1990s, as LaVilla turned on itself and self-destructed in the 1960s through the 1980s, and as the city that had absorbed LaVilla a century before decided to demolish it wholly, though eminent domain and “urban renewal” in the early 1990s, and as Jacksonville subsequently mythologized LaVilla as the cultural-center-of-gravity-it-once-was, 613 West Ashley survived and remained the HQ.
When Eartha was 97 years old, in 1974, she still went to bed in her room on the second floor of the former center of jazz and the blues. Over the decades, Eartha went to bed on the second floor to the sounds of Big Band jazz and Dixieland, the blues, gunshots, the ringing in her ears of speeches by James Weldon Johnson, Martin Luther King, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Through the late 1960s and early 1970s, she heard despair at night, but also laughter and singing.
At the turn of 1974, Eartha was the tiny, bird-like, Old-Testament-but-New-Testament saint at the center of town. She died in January. I was born in June. I so wish I could have met her.
Eartha White stood barely five feet tall, but more than four decades after her death, she’s still bigger than the city of Jacksonville. Whoever follows me and writes a better book, I hope they’ll acknowledge I wrote the first one. I wish my birth, months after her death, represented some continuum, but I’d never claim anything so foolish. I’m terribly selfish, a romantic, and I think that in writing In Search of Eartha White, Storehouse for the People, I fell in love.
I saw that angelic photograph when she was about 17, read of the death of her fiancé, and watched grow the mythos of the beatific saint who married her community.
Three months ago, I caught a glimpse of a portrait of Eartha White, wholly different from mine, but equally representing her goodness as a human being without hagiography.
The artist, Roosevelt Watson III, was showing his moveable architectural hymn to Eartha in his studio at CoRK Arts District in Riverside. I’d met him only twice, though I’d seen his work before in major exhibits. I’d only met his wife Shawana Brooks, the art critic, once, though we’d communicated several times.
When I saw Eartha White look out at me from Roosevelt’s open doors, I saw her as I’d never seen her but also as she’d visited me, angelically and ghostly, when I’d most needed to find her before. Roosevelt and I shook hands, grabbed each other, and clapped each other on the back. I felt like I’d always known him.
Then I saw Roosevelt’s finished work, “Tabono’s Tempo: A Hymn for Mother Earth-A, (Accompagnato de Negro),” at a showing called “A More Perfect Union: Explorations of Human Rights” downtown at the Space Gallery. At first I stood back, watched several people approach the artwork, caught a word or two of Roosevelt’s discussing it. I walked away from it a few times, circled the gallery, and kept coming back.
Though I said whatever words I said, I still feel speechless before Roosevelt’s “Hymn.” This Tuesday, however, he and I will share space at the Clara White Mission with Ju’Coby Pittman, who’s led the Mission forward since the early 1990s.
I’ve not been to Lourdes to praise St. Bernadette, not walked the Camino de Santiago, nor made pilgrimage to Mecca and walked the four corners of the Ka’aba. I do, however, place my forehead to the ground before the magnolia behind my house. I do, however, write of each street of my city in each book I publish or story I post as I would bibles of similar stories of previous peoples in other lands.
And I do feel the sacred weight of all that’s happened, all that’s been given, in the Clara White Mission on Ashley Street.
In the fall of 2014, I stood with Ju’Coby Pittman in the feeding room and auditorium on the first floor of the Clara White Mission, where we held the launch party for In Search of Eartha White, A Storehouse for the People.
I read, finally, thus:
Whatever Eartha White, at any point in her life, would think of In Search of Eartha White, I’ve learned that she would meet the sincere urgency of my quest with kindness.
Knowing nothing as strange as story, I can hardly believe I’m reading from this book in the same building in which Eartha White lived and died.
Here, in this building, in the Globe Theater, Vaudeville troupes and blues singers performed.
Here, in this building, in the Mission’s early years, quilting bees were held and Great Depression Works Progress Administration projects headquartered.
(And barber shops and radio stations and newspaper offices.)
Here, former slaves told folklorists what they remembered of their lives.
Here, the blind were taught to do beadwork and the illiterate to read.
Here, in this very room, tens of thousands of people in need have been fed and clothed.
Here, the Mt. Ararat Male Quartet sang for an elevator fund.
Here, throughout the years, Eartha White brought dozens of stray dogs and cats.
Here, Eartha White was Eartha White, listening to an opera record in the middle of the night.
Here, a fire caught and ravaged the rooms.
Here, Eartha White gave a rededication speech that matched the funeral wishes she typed out, here, on the second floor.
Here, the sirens came.
Here, young men broke all the first-floor windows in the middle of the night in the early 1970s.
Here, infiltrated the rats and the bats and pigeons.
Here, two young women and their dedicated staff staved off a City government out to destroy the vision of Eartha White in the name of urban renewal.
Here, still, beats the moral and ethical heart of Jacksonville, Florida, strong again, as it ever had been.
I so wish I could have met Eartha White. I’ve tried to meet her every day I’ve researched and written about her life.
Such a project has failure built into its design, but I’ve done the best I can do.
I’m left with a surreal and uncanny humility I’m grateful ever to have lived in this body and this mind in this lifetime.
Here, I give Eartha White what little I can return for what she gave of her life.