About Walter Francis White
WALTER FRANCIS WHITE, 1893-1955
Walter White was born in Atlanta, Georgia, on July 1, 1893. He was one of the seven children (he had five sisters and one brother) of George White, a Post Office employee, and his wife Madeline Harrison White. He completed high school in 1912 and entered Atlanta University, from which he graduated in 1916. While an undergraduate he had a variety of part-time jobs and was at one time a hotel porter. He later became an insurance salesman for the black-owned, Atlanta-based Standard Life Insurance Company. After graduation, White became a full-time clerk with that company. White was an active and energetic member of the Atlanta branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (N.A.A.C.P.), which he served as secretary. Through his work for that organization he became acquainted with James Weldon Johnson, then Field Secretary and National Organizer for the Association. It was on Johnson's recommendation and at his urging that White consented to become one of the Associate Secretaries of the N.A.A.C.P. He served in this capacity from 1918 to 1929. White married one of the Association's office secretaries, Leah Gladys Powell, in 1922. During the twenties White became famous for his first-hand investigations of lynching, which he conducted by posing as a white man. He also published two novels, Fire in the Flint (1924) and Flight (1926), and an exposé of lynching, Rope and Faggot, A Biography of Judge Lynch (1928).
When James Weldon Johnson left the N.A.A.C.P., Walter White was made acting Secretary. With Johnson's final resignation, White succeeded to the permanent position in 1931. During his tenure as Secretary, from 1929 to 1955, White led the campaign against the confirmation of John J. Parker to the Supreme Court, directed the Association's activities in the Scottsboro case, and directed activities designed to thwart communist influence in the organization. He also consolidated the powers of the Secretary by exercising strong personal control over the national staff. From 1943 to 1945 White served as a war correspondent for the New York Post. He visited most of the major war areas and as a result of his experiences wrote A Rising Wind (1945). Later he expanded his public writings by producing an editorial column for several newspapers, including the Chicago Defender. In 1948 he published his autobiography, A Man Called White.
The years 1949 and 1950 were very active years for White. It was at this time that he carried out his plans to divorce Gladys Powell and marry Poppy Cannon, a white woman. Just prior to his marriage, he submitted his resignation to the N.A.A.C.P., but his letter of resignation was filed without being acted upon, though he was granted a year's leave of absence. There may have been a connection between his impending marriage and his attempted resignation, as he had kept his marriage plans a secret from the Association. Later White withdrew his resignation. While on leave of absence White married, participated in the 'Round the World Town Hall Meeting, and entered on an extensive lecture tour. During his leave there were two developments within the Association that were to face White on his return. The first was a feeling that the communists had again gained an undue influence in some branches of the Association. The second internal difficulty involved White himself. Many members of the local branches and of the national staff felt that White exercised too much power, and there was an attempt to oust him. Though he thwarted this attempt and retained the secretaryship, the office was stripped of some of its power. During the last five years of his life White increased those of his activities not related to the N.A.A.C.P. and the field of race relations. He became particularly interested in Haiti and the Caribbean, and sometimes acted as an unofficial spokesman for the interests of that area. White was likewise active on behalf of India and interested himself in its economic and political development. He cultivated the friendship of "Nan" Pandit, Nehru's sister, and made arrangements for Nehru to meet black leaders when he visited the United States. During the 1950's White was in declining health as the result of a heart ailment. He died of a heart attack on March 21, 1955.
Members of Walter White's Immediate Family:
George White - father
Madeline White - mother
George White - brother
Madeline White - sister
Alice White Glenn - sister
Helen Martin - sister
- Olive White - sister
Leah Gladys Powell White - first wife
- Walter Carl Darrow White - son called "Pidge" for le petit pigeon
Jane White - daughter
Poppy Cannon White - second wife
Cynthia Cannon - second Mrs. White's child
Alf Askland - second Mrs. White's child
Claudia Philippe - second Mrs. White's child
Charles Claudius Philippe - second Mrs. White's third husband
- No material in collection
Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library P. O. Box 208240 New Haven, CT 06520-8240 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Phone: (203) 432-2972 Fax: (203) 432-4047
Call Number: JWJ MSS 38 Creator: White, Walter Francis, 1893-1955. Title: Walter Francis White and Poppy Cannon papers Dates: circa 1910-1956 Physical Description: 20.85 linear feet (44 boxes, including 4 oversize boxes) Summary: The Walter White and Poppy Cannon Papers document the careers and lives of Walter White and Poppy Cannon and span the dates 1910 to 1956. The Papers contain correspondence, writings, other papers, and photographs documenting Walter White's career as the Secretary for the N.A.A.C.P. and as a writer. Poppy Cannon's career as an editor, writer, and publicity consultant is also documented in the Papers.
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Born Walter Francis White, July 1, 1893, in Atlanta, GA; died of a heart attack, March 21, 1955; son of George (a mail carrier) and Madeline White; married Leah Gladys Powell (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People [NAACP] staff member) February 15, 1922 (divorced, 1949); married Poppy Cannon (a writer), July 6, 1950. Education: Atlanta University, B.A., 1916; graduate study at City College of New York, 1920s.
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Walter Francis White (July 1, 1893, Atlanta, Georgia – March 21, 1955, New York, New York) was a civil rights activist who led the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for almost a quarter of a century and directed a broad program of legal challenges to segregation and disfranchisement. He was also a journalist, novelist, and essayist. He graduated from Atlanta University in 1916 (now Clark Atlanta University). In 1918 he joined the small national staff of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in New York at the invitation of James Weldon Johnson, where he acted as Johnson's assistant national secretary. White later succeeded Johnson as the head of the NAACP, serving from 1931 to 1955.
White oversaw the plans and organizational structure of the fight against public segregation. Under his leadership, the NAACP set up the Legal Defense Fund, which raised numerous legal challenges to segregation and disfranchisement, and achieved many successes. Among these was the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which determined that segregated education was inherently unequal. White was the virtual author of President Truman's presidential order desegregating the armed forces after the Second World War. White also quintupled NAACP membership to nearly 500,000.
Early life and education
White was the fourth of seven children born in Atlanta to George W. White and Madeline Harrison. When White was born, George had graduated from Atlanta University and was a postal worker. Madeline had graduated from Clark University and became a teacher. They belonged to the influential First Congregational Church, founded after the Civil War by freedmen and the American Missionary Association, based in the North. Among the new middle class of blacks, both of the Whites ensured that Walter and each of their children got an education.
After graduating in 1916 from Atlanta University, a historically black college, White's first job was with the Standard Life Insurance Company, one of the new and most successful businesses started by African Americans in Atlanta. He also worked to organize an NAACP chapter in Atlanta; the organization had been set up several years before and White was supportive of their work. He and other leaders were successful in getting the Atlanta School Board to support improving education for black children.
At the invitation of James Weldon Johnson, White moved to New York and in 1918 started working at the national headquarters of the NAACP.
Marriage and family
White married Gladys Powell in 1922. They had two children, Jane White, who became an actress on Broadway and television; and Walter Carl Darrow White, who lived in Germany for much of his adult life.
The Whites' long marriage ended in divorce in 1949. (Furious at his father for his actions, from then the son used as his name only "Carl Darrow".)
That same year, White married Poppy Cannon, a magazine editor from South Africa who was of European descent. They lived together for the rest of his life.
Of mixed race with African and European ancestry, White's appearance showed his high proportion of European ancestry. He emphasized in his autobiography, A Man Called White (p. 3): "I am a Negro. My skin is white, my eyes are blue, my hair is blond. The traits of my race are nowhere visible upon me." Five of his great-great-great-grandparents were black and the other 27 were white. All of his family were light-skinned, and his mother Madeline was also blue-eyed and blonde. Her maternal grandparents were Dilsia, a slave, and Dilsia's master William Henry Harrison, who much later became president of the United States. Madeline's mother Marie Harrison was one of Dilsia's mixed-race daughters by Harrison, and her father Augustus Ware was a white man.
Sinclair Lewis' 1947 novel, Kingsblood Royal, about a man who appears to be white but learns late in life that he is black, has characters based in part on White and his professional circles, many of whom were of mixed race and among the educated elites of black society, with relatives or friends who had chosen to live as white based on appearance. Lewis consulted White on the novel and White helped him meet numerous professional acquaintances. While some white critics found the novel contrived, the prominent African-American magazine Ebony named it the best novel of the year.
Investigating riots and lynchings
White used his appearance to increase his effectiveness in conducting investigations of lynchings and race riots in the American South. He could "pass" and talk to whites, but also managed to identify himself as black and talk to the African-American community. Such work was dangerous, but he investigated 41 lynchings and eight race riots while working with the NAACP.
One of the first riots he investigated was that of October 1919 in Elaine, Arkansas, where white vigilantes and Federal troops in Phillips County killed more than 200 black sharecroppers. The case had both labor and racial issues. The white militias had come to the town and hunted down blacks in retaliation for the killing of a white man. He was killed in a shootout at a church where black sharecroppers were meeting on issues related to organizing with an agrarian union.
White was granted credentials from the Chicago Daily News. That enabled him to obtain an interview with Governor Charles Hillman Brough of Arkansas, who would not have met with him as the representative of the NAACP. Brough gave White a letter of recommendation to help him meet people, and his autographed photograph.
White was in Phillips County for only a brief time before his identity was discovered; he took the first train back to Little Rock. The conductor told him that he was leaving "just when the fun is going to start", because they had found out that there was a "damned yellow nigger down here passing for white and the boys are going to get him." Asked what they would do to him, the conductor told White, "When they get through with him he won't pass for white no more!" "High yellow" was a term used at the time to refer to white-appearing blacks, mostly those of mixed-racial descent.
White published his findings about the riot and trial in the Daily News, the Chicago Defender and The Nation, as well as the NAACP's own magazine The Crisis. Governor Brough asked the United States Postal Service to prohibit the mailing of the Chicago Defender and Crisis to Arkansas, while others attempted to enjoin distribution of the Defender at the local level.
The NAACP put together a legal defense of the men convicted and carried the case to the Supreme Court. Its ruling overturned the Elaine convictions and established important precedent about the conduct of trials. The Supreme Court found that the original trial was held under conditions that adversely affected the defendants' rights. Some of the courtroom audience were armed, as were a mob outside, so there was intimidation of the court and jury. The 79 black defendants had been quickly tried: 12 were found guilty of murder and sentenced to death; 67 were condemned to sentences from 20 years to life. No white man was prosecuted for the many black deaths.
Attacks on Paul Robeson
During the McCarthy era, White did not criticize McCarthy’s actions in Congress. He feared a backlash might cost the NAACP its tax-exempt status and lead to equating Civil Rights with Soviet Communism. He criticised singer/activist Paul Robeson, who was accused of pro-Soviet leanings, and alongside Roy Wilkins, editor of The Crisis, arranged for Paul Robeson: Lost Shepherd, a leaflet written under pseudonym to be printed and distributed.
Through his cultural interests and his close friendships with white literary power brokers Carl Van Vechten and Alfred A. Knopf, White was one of the founders of the "New Negro" cultural flowering. Popularly known as the "Harlem Renaissance", the period was one of intense literary and artistic production, with Harlem becoming the center of black American intellectual and artistic life. It attracted creative people from across the nation, as did New York City in general.
Writer Zora Neale Hurtson accused Walter White of stealing her designed costumes from her play The Great Day. White never returned the costumes to Hurston even after she pleaded to him via mail.
Zora Neale Hurston: a literary biography (page 202)
White was the author of critically acclaimed novels: Fire in the Flint (1924) and Flight (1926). His non-fiction book Rope and Faggot: A Biography of Judge Lynch (1929) was a study of lynching. Additional books were A Rising Wind (1945), his autobiography A Man Called White (1948), and How Far the Promised Land (1955). Unfinished at his death was Blackjack, a novel on Harlem life and the career of an African-American boxer.
Awards and honors
1927 – White received the Harmon Award (William E. Harmon Foundation Award for Distinguished Achievement among Negroes) for his book Rope and Faggot: An Interview with Judge Lynch, a study of lynching.
1937 – Awarded the Spingarn Medal by the NAACP, for outstanding achievement by an African American.
2002 – Molefi Kete Asante listed Walter Francis White on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.
2009 – White was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame
Walter Francis White's Timeline
July 1, 1893
Atlanta, Fulton, Georgia
February 15, 1922
October 30, 1922
New York, New York, NY, USA
June 8, 1927
New York, New York, NY, USA
July 6, 1950
New York, New York, NY, USA
March 21, 1955
New York City, NY