Black History Month: Walter White

Walter White

(July 1, 1893 – March 21, 1955)

7th - Walter Francis White

[su_note note_color=”#40cd11″ radius=”5″]Noteworthy Accomplishments & Historical Facts [su_list icon_color=”#191f17″]
  • African American Civil Rights Activist
  • Led the NAACP for nearly a quarter of a century
  • Became an undercover agent investigating lynchings in the South
  • NAACP’s secret weapon
  • Infiltrated Ku-Klux-Klan (KKK) groups
  • Chose to live life as a Black man despite his appearance

Choosing to Live Life as Black from a Young Age

Walter White was the 4th of seven children born to George W. White and Madeline (Harrison) White, in Atlanta, GA. The White family was among the Black elite, and ensured that each of their children got an education. Walter was of mixed race with African and European ancestry on both sides; however, his features favored his European ancestry. 

“I am a Negro. My skin is white, my eyes are blue, my hair is blond. The traits of my race are nowhere visible upon me.” – Walter F. White (from the autobiography, A Man Called White)

Walter and his family identified as Negro and lived among Atlanta’s Negro community. When he was 8 years old, he threw a rock at a white child who called him a derogatory name for drinking from the fountain reserved for Blacks. Events like this helped him shape his self identity from a young age. When he was 13 years old, during the Atlanta Race Riots of 1906, a white mob threatened to attack his family home; it was that moment, he determined that he could never be part of a race that carried within it such a ghastly hatred.

[su_box title=”Bonus History Fact” box_color=”#47bc0e” radius=”5″]Five of his great-great-great grandparents were Black, the other 27 were white. His great grandfather was 9th US president, William Henry Harrison, whom had six children with one of his slaves and concubine, Dilsia. When he ran for president he did not want any “bastard slave children” around, so he gave four of them to his brother, who sold them to a Georgia planter. [/su_box]

Honing His Skills to Pass as White to Become the NAACP’s Secret Weapon

A 1916 graduate of Atlanta University, Walter worked in insurance before protesting cuts in funding for Black students in Atlanta. After starting a local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Walter moved to New York City, NY and became a member of the organization’s national team in 1918, when executive secretary James Weldon Johnson selected him to be an assistant secretary. This is where he began to develop skills to pass for white, a skill he later used to preserve his safety as a civil rights investigator for the NAACP while in the South.

Though he started out as the assistant secretary, he became an undercover agent investigating lynchings in the South, which were at a peak. With his keen investigative skills and light complexion, he proved to be NAACP’s secret weapon against white mob violence. His appearance, paired with his Southern accent, meant he was able to obtain responses when he questioned politicians and suspected lynchers. He sometimes became involved in Ku Klux Klan (KKK) groups in the South in order to expose those involved in lynchings and other murders. All this despite the extreme and constant risk to his life. The information he uncovered was then broadcasted by the NAACP. 

There was a time when Walter almost joined the KKK as an undercover, but declined to do so because he was fearful that his true identity may be out. Even though he did not officially join the KKK, he was able to infiltrate many meetings. 

The Moment His Cover was Almost Blown

He first investigated the October 1919 riot in Elaine, Arkansas, where white vigilantes and the Federal troops in Phillips County killed more than 200 black sharecroppers. This case consisted of both racial and labor issues, because the whites were attempting to suppress the black sharecroppers from trying to organize with an agrarian union. The white vigilantes established guards outside of the meeting the black sharecroppers were having because of the threat, and a white man was killed. After that, white militias came to town, hunted down the Blacks in retaliation for that death, and to suppress the labor movement.

After the story broke, Walter was granted access from the Chicago Daily News, and he was able to secure an interview with Arkansas Governor, Charles Hillman Brough. Brough would not have met with him as an NAACP rep. Learning that his identity was discovered, Walter was in Phillips County briefly before taking the first train back to Little Rock. The conductor told him that he was leaving “just when the fun is going to start”, because they had found that there was a “damned yellow nigger down here passing for white and the boys are going to get him.” Walter then asked what they would do to him, and the conductor told him, “When they get through with him he won’t pass for white no more!”

Acting Leader of the NAACP

Walter investigated 41 lynchings. 8 race riots, and 2 cases of widespread peonage, risking his life repeatedly through 1927. When James Weldon Johnson retired, Walter officially took over as NAACP’s executive secretary in 1931. He successfully prevented the confirmation of Judge John J. Parker, an avowed segregationist, to the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, his attempt to institute a federal anti-lynching law, which had the support of his good friend Eleanor Roosevelt, was shot down by Southern Senators. His close friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt helped gain him access to the White House, as he worked on many other civil rights issues.

Personal Life Controversy

In 1922, he married Leah Gladys Powell, a Black clerical worker at the NAACP. They had two children, Jane White and Carl Darrow (formerly Walter White, Jr). Walter and Leah were divorced in 1949. In that same year, he married Poppy Cannon, a divorced, white South African woman. This generated public controversy because he was a public figure of a noted African American rights organization. He was accused of wanting to be white by some members of the public, as well as his sister. Walter, the defender of integration, shrugged off the criticism, maintaining that one’s choice of a mate was a private matter. However, Leah and their children broke off their ties with him. His son later changed his name from Walter White Jr., to Carl Darrow, signifying his disgust and desire to separate from his father.

Walter maintained leadership within the NAACP until his untimely death (heart attack) on March 21, 1955.


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Georgia Encyclopedia