What’s In A Name?

Who am I?  

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose/ By any other name would smell as sweet." Originally a quote from the famous speech of Act II, Scene II of the Shakespeare play, Romeo and Joliet. The line is said by Juliet about Romeo's house: Montague. it implies that his name (and thus his family's feud with Juliet's family) means nothing, and they should be together.

Above all, I feel that this concept is representative of individuals or groups of people trying to help each other. My intension is to share some insights regarding Walter Francis White in today's post. He was a staunch supporter of civil rights and played a pivotal role in American history.

Walter was born of a mixed race with African and European ancestry on both sides. For example, he had features of an Anglo man. 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.  

Walter Francis White

The traits of my race are nowhere visible upon me." Of his 32 great-great-great-grandparents, only five were black, and the other 27 were white. However, Walter identified himself as a black man.

Hidden History 

William Henry Harrison, in March 1841 the ninth President of the United States, painted by Albert Gallatin Hoit

Interestingly enough, his mother's family asserts that her maternal grandparent was Dilsia, an enslaved woman and concubine, and her master, William Henry Harrison. Yes, the 9th president of the United States.  Furthermore, Harrison died just 31 days after his inauguration in 1841 and had the shortest presidency in U.S. history.

As a result, he was also the first U.S president to die in office. Harrison's death helped shape the U.S. Constitution regarding succession. However, I'll talk about Harrison in greater detail in the future.

The Road Taken 

Consequently, The White family belonged to the influential First Congregational Church, founded after the Civil War by freedmen and the American Missionary Association, based in the North. Of all the black denominations in Georgia, the Congregationalists were among the most socially, politically, and financially powerful. As a result, membership in First Congregational was the ultimate status symbol in Atlanta. The White family understood their place in Georgia society and their connection to black history.  

Meanwhile, Walter attended the acclaimed Atlanta University, a historically black college (HBC). He hoped to be educated by W. E. B. Du Bois, however, he had already moved to the North before White enrolled. The good news is that Du Bois knew White's parents well and created a relationship with Walter early in his career.  

Susequently, White had graduated in 1916 and took a job at the Standard Life Insurance Company, a new and prominent business started by black people in Atlanta. He quickly organized a chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and focused on black education in the South. As a result, he and other leaders successfully got the Atlanta School Board to support improving education for black children, taught in segregated schools traditionally underfunded by the white-dominated legislature. Most importantly, White caught the attention of the NAACP's national leader, James Weldon Johnson

Who Will Lead Us? 

Meanwhile, at 25-years-old, White moved to New York City and started working at the national headquarters of the NAACP. He began as secretary assistant of the NAACP, where he worked with leaders like Du Bois and Weldon to change the civil rights landscape forever.

A new secret weapon was at the NAACP's disposal. In Du Bois's infinite wisdom, he asked Walter to be an undercover investigator for the NAACP during the highest levels of Lynching in the South's history. He passed as a white man in the role of an NAACP investigator, finding more safety in hostile environments and gaining accessible communication with white people in cases of violations of civil and human rights. 

Walter sometimes became involved in Klan groups in the South to expose those involved in lynchings and other murders. The NAACP publicized information about these crimes, but no local or state southern governments prosecuted many of these cases.

White was a strong supporter of federal anti-lynching bills, which were unable to overcome the opposition of the Southern Democrats in the Senate. Most importantly, One of his surveys showed that 46 of 50 lynchings during the first six months of 1919 were black victims, 10 of whom burned at the stake.

I will Help my Brother's and Sister's 

Following the Chicago Race Riot of 1919, White, like Ida B. Wells, concluded the causes of such violence were not the rape of a white woman by a black man, as was often rumored, but rather the result of "prejudice and economic competition." Furthermore, that was also the conclusion of a Chicago city commission, which investigated the 1919 rioting; specifically, ethnic Irish in South Chicago led the anti-black attacks. It was simply a case of eliminating your competition for market share and jobs. 

Ultimately, White succeeded Johnson as the head of the NAACP, leading the organization from 1929 to 1955. So, to become a popular leader, he had to compete with the appeal of Marcus Garvey; Walter learned to display skillful verbal dexterity.  Roy Wilkins, his successor at the NAACP, said, "White was one of the best talkers I've ever heard." Most importantly, he needed his verbal skills to help him and his peers navigate the treacherous waters of bigotry and ignorance in both society and government.  

The fight against the public or any segregation was at the forefront of everything Walter stood for. He oversaw the plans and organizational structure of the NAACP to fund and advocate for civil rights in America. For example, the NAACP set up its Legal Defense Fund under White's leadership, which conducted numerous legal challenges to segregation and disfranchisement and achieved many successes. The Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) was among these, which determined that segregated education was inherently unequal.  

Together We will Stand

Furthermore, White worked with Asa Philip Randolph and Judge William H. Hastie to provide language in a bill to support the integration of blacks in the United States Army Air Force USAAF - which constituted the first all-black flying unit, the 99th Pursuit Squadron (Tuskeegee Airmen).  

Finally, on April 3, 1939, Appropriations Bill Public Law 18 was passed by Congress, containing an amendment by Senator Harry H. Schwartz designating funds for training African-American pilots. The collaboration of black and white people helped move old thinking to new. White even worked with President Truman on desegregating the armed forces after the Second World War and wrote him a draft for the Executive Order to implement this.  

What's the Difference? 

In short, a white man named White, who had African heritage, impacted the lives of tens of millions of Americans through his consistent actions. He was solely focused on individuals' civil rights and liberties and for all to engage in their equality. Indeed, what is in a name? White or black makes no difference. It is in a person's heart that matters most.

One last note on Walter, during his 26 years as leader of the NAACP, he quintupled NAACP membership to nearly 500,000. A rose is indeed a rose.


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