In 1993, the City of Jacksonville had the Clara White Mission in its crosshairs. Mayor Ed Austin’s River City Renaissance plan sought to demolish the Clara White Mission along with the nearly 50 square blocks of LaVilla it bulldozed, but a young leader named Ju’Coby Pittman, the Mission’s fourth president, got in the way.
Today, the Clara White Mission, located at 613 West Ashley Street in the heart of LaVilla, is 111 years old. Its founder, Eartha White, ran the Mission for 70 years. Along the way, people compared her to Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Jane Addams and Jesus. She wasn’t quite five feet tall, but she was a giant in Jacksonville.
It wasn’t until 1928, eight years after Clara’s death that Eartha White named the Mission for her mother, and it wasn’t until 1932 that she purchased the former Globe Theater on West Ashley Street, which has headquartered the Mission ever since.
Though she was 79 years old by the time Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama, Eartha White was one of the great civil rights leaders of the South. In fact, one story—unfortunately it’s not true—claimed she was the 13th child of her mother Clara and the first to live, that an ancient preacher with a long beard, looking like an Old Testament prophet, foretold the birth of Clara’s 13th child, saying she should be named for the earth, for she would be a “storehouse for the people.”
The truth, kept secret throughout Eartha’s lifetime and unpublished prior to the launch of my book In Search of Eartha White: Storehouse for the People last September, is that Clara was not Eartha’s biological mother. Eartha’s biological mother was Mollie Chapman, a black maid for the wealthy white Stockton family, the same Stocktons who led the development of Avondale, San Marco, and Ponte Vedra. Eartha’s father was a lesser-known Stockton named Guy. Still, Eartha White learned her philanthropy from Clara, for whom helping anyone in need was natural.
Eartha was in her 20s when she started the Old Folks’ Home. She later started a tuberculosis hospital, an orphanage, child placement services and a home for unwed mothers. In the 1930s and 1940s, Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration and Federal Writers’ Project headquartered local chapters in the Mission. Every day and night the place bustled—not only with those who came for food and shelter, but with art classes, literacy classes, quilting bees, concerts, newspaper offices, radio stations, and business courses.
Eartha White bore considerable political power. When women first received the right to vote, Eartha White organized women’s voter registration drives. She worked behind the scenes to promote civil rights legislation and anti-lynching bills. She met with Jacksonville native A. Philip Randolph in Chicago in 1940 to discuss a March on Washington, 23 years before the March took place and Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream Speech” in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
Today, you can visit Eartha White’s bedroom, preserved as though she’ll be back any moment, on the second floor of the Mission. She didn’t “go home” at night or on weekends. She lived in the Mission with the people it was her life’s mission to help. The stairs that lead to the second floor are the ones Eartha fell down one night in January 1974, when she was 97, breaking multiple bones. She never recovered.
When Ju’Coby Pittman took over the Mission in the early ’90s, it was on the verge of collapse—both financial and physical. Today, it flourishes. It offers veterans’ and homeless services and culinary and janitorial training. You can sample the culinary students’ work for $10 a meal each Friday from 11am-1pm at “Clara’s at the Cathedral,” the Mission’s “training café” at St. Johns Episcopal Cathedral.