Alice White: The Principal Who Influenced Rosa Parks (1)

By Morice, Linda | Vitae Scholasticae, Annual 2006 | Go to article overview

Alice White: The Principal Who Influenced Rosa Parks (1)

Morice, Linda, Vitae Scholasticae

The recent passing of Rosa Parks has prompted interest in the life story of the civil rights heroine who quietly refused to be treated as a second-class citizen. Fourteen years before her death, Parks recalled in her autobiography that her school principal, Alice White, was an important guidepost in her growth as a civil rights activist. (2) Other women leaders of the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56--Johnnie Carr and Erna Dungee Allen--likewise identified their principal, Alice White, as an influential person in their development. (3) On the surface, White seems an unlikely candidate for such distinction. A White woman from Massachusetts, she was over 70 years of age when Parks, Carr, and Allen attended her school for Black girls in Montgomery, Alabama. However, an examination of primary and secondary sources reveals reasons White influenced the future civil rights leaders. Over a period of 41 years Alice White connected with the Black community and enhanced her pupils' self esteem through an affirming and consistent educational program that helped them develop the skills needed to address the inequities of a segregated society.

Early Life Influences

Alice Linfield White (1854-1935) spent her early childhood in Boston and West Newton, Massachusetts. (4) She was the oldest of seven children and the only one to live beyond the age of three. (5) Her father was a merchant who, as a young man, left rural Vermont to work in the dry goods business in Boston. (6) Her mother, the daughter of a prosperous family in Newburyport, Massachusetts, died at the age of 42 when Alice was 18 years old. (7) Mr. White remarried and established a residence on 28 acres in the western part of Framingham, Massachusetts, a rural, agricultural area. (8) As a young adult, Alice White still lived at home in Framingham with her father, stepmother, aunt, two laborers and a servant. (9) When her father died in 1883, (10) White was 28 years old. Her own obituary notes that she perceived she "was left an orphan" and concluded that since "no one had a claim on her, she felt she must have an interest in doing for others." (11) She applied for a teaching position with the American Missionary Association (AMA), a benevolent society working with Blacks in the South. (12)

The American Missionary Association was established in 1846 to protest the silence of missionary societies on the subject of slavery. With the outbreak of the Civil War, the organization led the way in providing relief to slaves escaping from Confederate lines. Between 1866 and 1880 the AMA employed more than 2000 agents in the South, many of whom were teachers. (13) The association provided relief, helped former slaves acquire land, pushed for civil and political rights for Blacks, established schools and churches, and advocated for a system of public education in the South. Although its early initiatives were in elementary schools, the organization later shifted its focus to graded schools, normal schools, and colleges. (14) The AMA's leaders came from many different Protestant denominations; however, by 1875 the organization was dependent on "a few score faithful supporters and Congregational churches." (15)

A majority of AMA teachers were single, White women from professional and farm families in the North. According to historian Joe M. Richardson, an AMA teaching assignment provided an outlet for emotional energy and an opportunity for fulfillment during a period when rewarding work was not readily available to women. Applicants for AMA positions typically gave several reasons for wanting to go to the South, including a desire to improve the condition of southern Blacks. AMA teachers were required to demonstrate their Christian standing and good character. Good health, energy, an ability to get along with others, and a capacity to endure hardship were also desired. Applicants were expected to abstain from the use of opium or intoxicating beverages. As Richardson summarizes it, the AMA was looking for "healthy, experienced, evangelical Christians with culture, commitment, personality, and common sense. …

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