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An Interview with Edith White
November 6, 1982
Interviewer: Mary Pelham White (no relation!)


Biographical Information

Edith White was born in New Jersey in the early 1920’s. She attended a small private school there. Her senior year in high school, which was not long after the Depression, her father died. These combined conditions put her family under a financial strain, so Edith applied for a scholarship to Vassar and won it.

Edith White worked her way through college. Our country was at war (WWII) when she was in her senior year at Vassar and many of her friends were being killed. The Navy summoned those with good math and language skills to enter the war effort. She trained in cryptography, that was breaking Japanese codes. After graduation, she was commissioned in the Navy WAVES and served her first assignment in Washington in cryptography. Her second assignment was to a large tuberculosis hospital in northern New York state, Sampson Hospital. There, she worked with young boys who had contracted T.B. on duty in the south Pacific. She went out on the wards and tried to get them interested in planning for when they got well and when they got out. Here at Sampson Hospital, she met Forrest White who was completing his medical internship.

In 1946, she married Forrest White. They lived in New York at Sampson Hospital for a while, and then he was sent to California for more training. Their first child, Hap, was born in 1947. Two years later, they came back to Richmond where Forry did his Pediatric residency. Holly was born in Richmond.

The Whites came to Norfolk, Forrest White's birthplace, in 1950. That first year was grim because Forry had polio and they didn't know how things would work out. The next year, Edith White actively campaigned for Frances Pickens Miller, who was challenging the powerful Byrd Machine in Virginia for the U.S. Senate. During this time, the Whites were also actively engaged in rebuilding Forry's strength from his bout with polio. They particularly spent a lot of time playing tennis.

As one would predict, Edith White continued with her active interest in the inner workings of the community in her support of Mary Thrasher when she ran for office in Norfolk. She actively campaigned, urging women to register to vote and to use it by voting independently. She was instrumental in organizing the league of women voters in Norfolk. She was also a member of the Women's Interracial Council which labored to bridge the gap between the black and white communities. She belonged to the American Association of University Women and participated in its decision to admit black women. Upon hearing Eleanor Roosevelt speak in Richmond and urging those present to go home and start United Nations groups, Edith White returned to Norfolk the next day and did so.

The White's daughter, Barry, was born in 1954 and their son, Mark, was born in 1956. With a family of four young children, a husband/father recovering from polio and starting a new practice in Norfolk, Edith and Forrest White actively participated in the life of their Norfolk community.

Edith White's naturally vivacious personality combined with her great experience working in many different parts of the country and with people of different races made her active participation and interest in Norfolk very logical in sequence. She had good friends from different racial backgrounds both at Vassar and in the Armed Forces. Her thoughts were certainly influenced by the prevalent attitudes of her native New York, and most importantly, she genuinely cared about people.

In 1958, the Whites joined the newly formed Norfolk Committee for Public Schools. This group organized because a number of citizens were strongly opposed to Virginia’s Massive Resistance laws and wanted to effectively challenge them. The Massive Resistance Laws were Virginia’s response to the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. Virginia passed laws the following year which made it unlawful for any public school in the state to enroll children of both races. Many people fought individually when those laws were passed, but the real crisis came in 1958 when 151 Negro children applied for enrollment in white schools in Norfolk. That year, Norfolk schools postponed their opening until September 29th, at which time Gov. Almond issued a ruling over the six white schools and closing them as provided by state law. Forrest White was the first treasurer of the Norfolk Committee for Public Schools, and he later became President of their organization. Edith White's active participation is as logical as night following day, in light of her history. She said that "probably the reason a lot of the women got very interested in working for the Committee for Public Schools was because they had experience working together before, and they knew what they were working for."

Edith White has been the librarian at Norfolk Academy since 1961.

Transcript