James Herbert White achieved a national reputation for innovation and excellence in African American education. He successfully created and developed notable institutions and academic programs in social and financial climates that were indifferent, sometimes even hostile to the education of African Americans. He was born April 13, 1903, in Gallatin, Tennessee, to illiterate parents one generation removed from slavery. White’s strongest influence was his mother, Edna White, who impressed upon him the idea that education was essential to escaping the oppression of southern racism.
White attended segregated black schools in Gallatin until the age of fourteen, when he left for Indianapolis to work for fourteen dollars per week. After saving money, he enrolled in Tennessee Agricultural & Industrial Normal School (later Tennessee State University). After he graduated from A&I, the black high school in Gallatin hired him as assistant principal in 1924.Two years later, he married Augusta Charter, whom he had met at A&I. In 1927, they moved to Lexington, Tennessee, where he became principal, and she taught at Montgomery High School, a recently established institution supported by the Julius Rosenwald Fund.
In 1928, White accepted an offer to become principal of Hardeman County Training School in Whiteville, Tennessee. In 1919, with the support from the Julius Rosenwald Fund, the Whiteville African American community, and a bank loan, Principal Jessie C. Allen had opened the Hardeman County Training School, offering education through the eighth grade. He died shortly thereafter, and his replacements were ineffective at working with the community and reducing debt. In 1928, White found a dilapidated school with no electricity or sanitary toilets, a disconnected black community, a white community that was either indifferent or hostile toward African American education, and five thousand dollars in debt.
He immediately organized community support and successfully solicited the County Board of Education to make basic repairs. Principal White initiated local fundraising campaigns and, despite their financial restraints, his community of supporters exceeded goals and helped eradicate the school’s debt. White also increased academic quality along with vocational training and continued to expand the campus, using student labor.
In 1930, a full high-school program began. In response to petitions from the black community, the school was renamed to honor the two principals who developed it. By 1932, Allen-White High School offered both four-year academic and vocational programs. Despite the Depression economy, enrollment increased dramatically. White and the parent-teacher group he developed successfully petitioned the county for funds for building materials and continued to expand the campus with volunteer labor. From 1928 into the 1940s, White was successful in increasing curriculum offerings, faculty qualifications, physical plant, enrollment, and graduation rates. The school drew students from all of Hardeman County, neighboring counties, and from Arkansas and Mississippi, making it necessary to build dormitories and provide bus services.
White developed an aggressive and innovative fundraising approach that he used throughout his career. The practices and programs he implemented were unusual for any school of the period. A monthly newsletter sent to potential individual donors and philanthropic agencies nationwide encouraged their support. He personally contacted philanthropists and foundations, hosting them on the Allen-White campus, and securing major contributions. His astounding record of securing financial support brought national attention to Allen-White High School. It became a national model for rural education and an instructional partner with Fisk University.
Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee, had the problems of academic accreditation and debt that White had successfully addressed at the high-school level. When Lane offered White its presidency, he accepted and launched a comprehensive fundraising campaign that included increasing faculty and staff support through payroll reductions, and organizing students to raise a specified contribution. His theme for off-campus solicitations was the “Book of a Million Friends,” a solicitation of alumni, parents, black and white residents of the area, and relatives, friends, and colleagues of those groups. The goal was for each contact to give a minimum of $1.00 until they recorded one million donor names. The campaign funded physical improvements on the Lane campus.
Attempting to achieve the school’s first “A” accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools, White improved Lane’s academic standards, faculty, and facilities. In December 1949, Lane College received full accreditation, giving its graduates credentials equal to those of white alumni of southern schools.
With his respected record of financial and academic development, in 1950 White took on the most daunting challenge any educator could consider. Mississippi hired him as the first president of a college that did not yet exist and charged him with its creation literally from the ground up. Four years after a 1946 legislative act created the Mississippi Vocational College to provide blacks with training for work, the school existed only on paper; there was no location, no physical plant, no faculty or curriculum, no students. A site near Itta Bena, Mississippi, was chosen. It was an entirely vacant, abandoned cotton patch, part of a former plantation. As founding president, White was determined to bring an institution “up from a cotton patch,” the title phrase of his memoir, and develop it into the future.
Campus facilities rose while White recruited faculty, students, and financial supporters and developed the university’s curriculum. He continued these efforts for twenty years. To serve more students before the campus could accommodate a growing enrollment, he initiated a program of bus transportation and satellite instructional locations. From early small classes, the residential student body grew to more than two thousand.
Insisting on a rigorous academic curriculum, White exceeded the college’s legislated mandate to provide training for African American teachers and instruction in agriculture and trades. To recruit and retain credentialed faculty in a remote rural area when salaries were low, he found funding for faculty housing and for an innovative program of providing leave and travel expenses for faculty members working on advanced degrees. Before distance learning was a concept at many institutions, White used telephone conferencing to bring off-campus instructors into classrooms. By contracting with faculty at other institutions to provide instruction, it was possible to increase course offerings without increasing salary budgets.
White continued his earlier fundraising techniques with the slogan “The College with a Million Friends.” He solicited all constituencies of the school, developing new supporters locally and nationally among both blacks and whites. He also solicited and received state funding despite legislators’ hostility to college programs for blacks, and he developed significant individual donor relationships that resulted in major gifts for new construction projects not funded by the state.
In addition to his degree from Tennessee A&I, White earned an M.A. from Columbia University. Nationally recognized for his innovative accomplishments in education, White received honors including an honorary Doctor of Laws conferred by Allen University, and an honorary Doctor of Letters from Rust College.
In 1964, the college became Mississippi Valley State College, offering full degrees and pre-professional and technical education. Four years later, still under White’s leadership, MVSC received full accreditation by the Southern Association of Schools and Colleges. James Herbert White’s vision, direction, and insistence on academic quality transformed the institution from a small vocational school in a bare cotton patch to a fully accredited college in only fourteen years. Three years after White’s 1971 retirement, the school received university status; fourteen days before his death, the school changed its name to Mississippi Valley State University.
James Herbert White, Up From a Cotton Patch (1979)