A MIRACLE ON ASHLEY STREET
Twenty years after the city tried to knock it down, the Clara White Mission is still a storehouse for the people
She didn’t know what she was getting herself into. When Ju’Coby Pittman became president of the Clara White Mission in 1993, its West Ashley Street headquarters was trashed, and one of the chief goals of Mayor Ed Austin’s “River City Renaissance” plan was to flatten the LaVilla neighborhood where the Mission had stood for most of a century.
“I remember your phone call your first day here, that night after work. You said, ‘Oh my God, what have I done?’” Meg Fisher, the Mission’s vice president since shortly after Pittman took the job, tells Pittman as they sit for an interview on the Mission’s second floor.
Pittman had taken the helm of one of the most venerable humanitarian organizations in the city. But when interviewing for the job, she never made her way past the first floor.
“There were years of donated items,” Pittman says. “Just stacks and stacks of stuff.”
“Floor to ceiling,” Fisher adds. “You couldn’t get off of the elevator on the third floor. There were holes in the roof and rats running through the hallways.”
But the deterioration of the Clara White Mission in the two decades after founder Eartha White’s death in 1974 was nothing compared to the threat it faced from the city of Jacksonville. Back then, it was an existential threat from Austin’s Renaissance. More recently, it’s the lingering threat of potentially crippling budget cuts. Through it all, the Clara White Mission has persevered even as LaVilla has all but vanished.
In 1902, in her mid-20s, Eartha White founded “the Colored Old Folks’ Home” on the Eastside in answer to a conspicuous absence of care for Jacksonville’s black population.
By then, White had already finished a career as an opera singer. Since her mid-teens, she’d toured the United States and Europe singing with the Oriental American Opera Company. She’d returned to Jacksonville only after her fiancé James Jordan died shortly before their wedding in 1896, apparently of tuberculosis.
Seventy-four years later, she told a New York Times reporter, “I never married. I was too busy. What man would put up with me running around the way I do?”
That “running around” began when she herself contracted the land sale for a black school in Duval County’s far southern community of Bayard, organized the construction of the school and taught the first classes. Later, it included the founding of a tuberculosis hospital for blacks, an orphanage, an adoption agency and a home for “unwed mothers.” It included food and clothing drives, and in 1920 when women won the right to vote, voter registration drives.
In 1940, White traveled to Chicago to meet with A. Philip Randolph, whom she’d known through most of his Jacksonville childhood, to help plan a March on Washington. (Randolph called off the march after President Roosevelt met with him and acceded to many of his demands.) White also resisted racist Florida legislation like that of the 1947 “White Primary Bill,” which would have prohibited black citizens from voting in primary elections. (The bill was proposed by Jacksonville state Sen. John Mathews, after whom the city would soon name a bridge.)
Though the Clara White Mission dates its origin to Eartha White obtaining legal status for charitable work in 1904, she didn’t name her agency for her adoptive mother until 1928, eight years after Clara’s death.
In fact, the work of the Mission really began even before the Old Folks’ Home, back in the soup kitchen the two women ran from their home on Eagle Street, now First Street, before the turn of the 20th Century. All throughout Eartha’s childhood, Clara used their home to feed and clothe others and collect gifts for poor children at Christmas.
Eartha White’s long-term goal for the Mission was simply to keep evolving the humanitarianism she’d learned from her former-slave mother, whose motto was, “Do all the good you can, in all the ways you can, for all the people you can, while you can.”
In promotional materials for the River City Renaissance, Austin claimed his plan would move Jacksonville past “the threshold to become the ‘Next Great American City,’” a promise the city’s mayors have made since before Hans Tanzler dubbed Jacksonville the “Bold New City of the South” in the late ’60s.
Austin’s plan required the destruction of nearly 50 square blocks of LaVilla, a blighted, dense and mostly black urban neighborhood that had once been the cultural epicenter of segregated Jacksonville.
Dissertations have been written on the musical and theatrical culture of LaVilla. More than a dozen such venues lined West Ashley Street in the 1920s, when blues and ragtime guitarist Arthur “Blind” Blake recorded “Ashley Street Blues” with vocalist Leona Wilson.
In the early 1930s, Eartha White bought the Globe Theater and turned it into the Clara White Mission.
By the time Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat in 1955, Eartha was already 79 years old. During the 1960s, Jacksonville Mayor Haydon Burns vowed to fight integration and desegregation in any form, and the city experienced major race riots in 1960, 1964 and 1969. Many of the better-off residents and business leaders in LaVilla left the neighborhood.
Throughout the ’70s, poverty and crime increased in LaVilla, and the neighborhood’s great Carpenter Gothic and Victorian houses decayed. The 1980s crack cocaine epidemic hit especially hard. In 1993, Austin saw LaVilla as an ugly “front door” to Downtown from Interstate 95. And city officials saw no reason the razing of LaVilla shouldn’t include the Mission. After all, it had been nearly 20 years since Eartha White had died, and the city had written the neighborhood off as a crack den and hotbed of prostitution.
Pittman remembers how Frank Nero, then-director of the Downtown Development Authority, told her and Fisher that if they could get enough people interested in LaVilla, the city might be willing to reconsider. Fisher recalls City Council members suggesting, perhaps paradoxically, that if the Mission wanted to bring the city around, they might not want to have all those homeless people hanging around.
The Mission got its reprieve thanks not to the city’s change of heart but to the Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission, which helped it obtain a historic designation in 1993. And the Mission found good fortune another way: As United Way prepared to exit its role as the Mission’s last remaining substantial funding source, the Jessie Ball duPont Fund stepped in. The fund still operates as the bequest of one of Jacksonville’s wealthiest residents in its history.
The rest of LaVilla was not so fortunate. While the Mission stood, blocks of tall houses, old commercial buildings, theaters, restaurants and bars were demolished.
In return for the loss of the neighborhood, the mayor’s office promised an enormous recreation center, stimulus money for new Downtown housing, and a “greenbelt” between the interstate and Downtown. The city delivered only on the greenbelt, and then only in the form of empty fields where all the buildings had once stood.
In Eartha White’s time, the Mission was the center of LaVilla and of much of black Jacksonville. The building housed the Works Progress Administration offices to which Zora Neale Hurston and Stetson Kennedy reported, Florida newsrooms for national black news outlets, and everything from daily feedings of the homeless to Red Cross programs and quilting bees. Tragically, little of LaVilla remains, and it’s hard to even imagine the once-thriving urban neighborhood it was.
Meanwhile, Ju’Coby Pittman has developed the Mission into a successful nonprofit that works with the Department of Veterans Affairs and other nonprofits — and the very city of Jacksonville that once sought to tear it down.
In Pittman’s second year, the Mission hosted a fund-raising block party it called “the Miracle on Ashley Street.” They raised $5,000.
This Friday, May 23, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., the Mission celebrates the Miracle’s 20th incarnation. The Mission’s culinary students will prepare and serve the food, and with tickets priced at $25, Pittman expects to raise between $40,000 and $45,000.
While the Mission’s board once fretted over the purchase of a single secondhand station wagon for Eartha White, funding allocations today support its culinary and janitorial training programs, daily feedings of the homeless, the two farms it operates on the city’s Northside, and projects like the two historic Beaver Street buildings to be developed into veterans’ services and housing facilities.
Twenty years back, Pittman says, “A fund-raiser was a fish fry and a car wash.”
Now Pittman’s running for the District 9 City Council seat long held by the retiring Warren Jones. She says it was the importance of nonprofit organizations that convinced her to run for City Council — a body that, in tough times, can see their funding as expendable. Last year’s budget cuts threatened to take around $325,000 from the Mission’s $2.6 million annual operating budget.
“When the Council put the Mission below the line, and employment numbers above the line, I’m thinking, ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’” Pittman says.
Though the funds were reinstated, and none of the Mission’s students was affected, it was a nerve-racking time, Pittman says: “Students who were about to graduate would’ve suddenly had the rug pulled out from under them.”
Pittman grew up in Blodgett Homes, at the time a notorious housing project, but she nonetheless remembers a sense of community and her grandmother’s strength and status. It was in part due to the influence of her grandmother that Pittman had the courage to take over an institution seemingly headed for disaster, founded by perhaps the most powerful woman in the city’s history.
If she wins Jones’ seat next year, Pittman says, “It will be the second time I’ve stepped into some mighty big shoes.”
Richard McKissick is almost 90 years old and meticulously fashionable. He wears bow ties and silk vests and spectator shoes. He’s been speaking through an electrolarynx since his battle with throat cancer in the 1990s. More than half a century ago, he managed both the Strand and Roosevelt theaters in LaVilla.
“I lived in a tall residential building right behind the Clara White Mission, and I’d see Miss White all the time,” McKissick says. “She had a great deal of influence and power, but you wouldn’t know it to look at her. Her clothes were always tattered. She didn’t eat enough.”
Eartha White wore clothes from the Mission’s donation piles, she lived in the Mission among the homeless and dispossessed, and she frequently gave away the meal she was about to eat. These are comments that I’ve heard again and again from people I’ve interviewed, in letters and in documents I’ve unearthed in research for my book about Eartha White, to be released in the fall. Even the story of her naming carried a wonderful Old-Testament-prophet kind of mythos.
Supposedly, her mother, the former slave Clara White, had already lost 12 children before becoming pregnant with Eartha. One day, as Clara laundered clothes in an old metal tub outside on her front porch, her aging father and the much-older former-slave preacher Henry Harrison came to Clara to name her baby. Clara asked them how they knew she was pregnant. Her father wanted his granddaughter named for Mary Magdalene, the repentant prostitute, but Harrison wanted to name the baby after the Earth because, he said, she would become the “storehouse for the people.”
Clara told the men that if her baby lived, she would give her “the whole name,” Eartha Mary Magdalene White.
But the truth, which University of North Florida historian Daniel Schafer first wrote about in the 1970s, is far different.
Eartha White, adopted by Clara, was the daughter of Mollie Chapman, a black servant. Her father was Guy Stockton, a lackluster member of one of the wealthiest families in the
area. Legends of wealthy white connections and secret wealth clung to Eartha White all her life. But at her death, what little wealth she had was almost entirely tied up in property, the sale of which barely settled the Mission’s debt.
Shanek Bostic, a single mother of six children, came to the Clara White Mission because she wanted to take charge of her life and her children’s futures. She enrolled in the Mission’s Janitorial Training & Construction Maintenance program, which, combined with the Mission’s Culinary Apprenticeship Program, has a 71 percent transference rate
to employment. Both programs consist of a 20-week full-time intensive session.
Bostic’s class did everything from buffing floors to repairing sinks to speaking to the class. They built the tool shed and greenhouse in the culinary garden adjacent to the Mission. They also built and painted a fence out at White Harvest Farms, which the Mission operates on Moncrief Road. When Bostic finished the program, she got a business license to clean homes and do small repairs.
“We all worked together like a family,” Bostic says. “We learned a lot, and supported each other, and felt very cared for.”
Eartha White operated a laundry and a janitorial service, and supported the poor with gardening and urban farming. In fact, the story of White Harvest Farms is a fitting metaphor for the Clara White Mission’s resurgence.
White opened the Moncrief Road property as a black recreational and swimming facility in 1943. Within five years, the city began using land that abutted White’s property to dump incinerator ash full of mercury, lead and other toxins. Nearly six decades later, the Mission and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection worked to rid that property of contaminants and bring healthy soil to Eartha White’s former land. The result is the 11-acre White Harvest Farms, which thrives in the food desert along Moncrief Road. The Mission’s culinary students help plant and later prepare the farm’s crops, and the farm is developing a community garden and attached farmer’s market scheduled to open later this year.
Walking through White Harvest Farms, that original naming myth — that Eartha was to be a “storehouse for the people” — resonates beautifully. Pittman and Fisher both say that the Mission’s newest developments all end up returning to Eartha White’s original ideas that, in Fisher’s words, moving forward is like coming “full circle.”
“Anytime we think we have a new idea,” Pittman says, “we end up finding out that somewhere along the way, Eartha White had already thought of it.”