... human and civil rights pioneer
Several years ago Edith, my wife, and I decided to go to the Cambridge, Massachusetts, Public Library on a blustery December day to hear Stephen Ambrose, the notable historian of WW II. He and his collaborator, Douglas Brinkley had combined to update a book of essays that had been compiled by distinguished historians of an earlier generation, Henry Steele Commager and Allan Nevins. They were on a book tour to publicize their new compilation, "Witness to America."
Dr. Ambrose had compiled a collection of audio tapes of WW II veterans of the D-day landings in Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge. He had written two best selling books based on those audio tapes and had listed my name in the backs of both books as having contributed. I brought copies of both books with me and as he signed them he graciously thanked me.
Before the book signing both he and Professor Brinkley spoke to the audience at some length, Ambrose about WW II and Brinkley about Rosa Parks and the battle for Civil Rights. At the outset of his remarks Douglas Brinkley noted that Alice White of Melrose had been a primary influence on Rosa Parks, the black woman who had courageously refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama.
At the mention of Melrose Douglas Brinkley had grabbed our attention. He then went on to tell how Alice White and her associate, H. Margaret Beard had gone to Montgomery to establish the Montgomery Industrial School for Negro Girls. At the time there were more than 50,000 black students who were being denied a high school education because there was no high school in the city for black students. Because of that, Washington approved and supported the establishment of the school.
Miss White spent 41 years at the school laboring enthusiastically to uplift the young women and their lives. Her emphasis was on character building as well as educational instruction. She counseled and guided them in personal talks and became a true friend and established in them the realization that not all white people were racists.
Rosa Parks later wrote that what she had learned best from Miss White was that she was a person with dignity and self-respect and that she should not set her sights lower than anybody else just because she was black. She added that she had been taught to be ambitious and that one could do what one wanted in life.
Unfortunately, the school was forced to close in 1928 just after Rosa McCauley Parks had finished the eighth grade. White Montgomery harbored hostility toward "northern abolitionist types" and the teachers at the school had been socially ostracized, accused of teaching racial equality and were referred to with invectives. The school had been burned to the ground earlier in the century. As the power of the Ku Klux Klan grew, Miss White's School became a prime target. Alice White had grown old, blind, and infirm but nevertheless she was essentially run out of town.
She headed back home to Melrose with no idea just how profound an impression her teachings had made on the many girls who were to become prime movers in the Civil Rights Movement.
A long letter that Alice White had written to Rosa Parks shortly before her death in Melrose in 1935 at the age of 80 remains one of Miss Parks's most cherished keepsakes.
During her final years Alice White lived in the apartment building on the corner of West Wyoming Avenue and Main Street where she was frequently visited by contemporary friends and admirers of a younger generation one of whom is still alive and remembers her visit vividly.
Note: Material for this story was taken from Alice White's death notice that appeared in the Melrose Free Press and from Douglas Brinkley's book about Rosa Parks. It contains quotes and near quotes from both sources.
December 3, 2004