Few have heard of Walter Francis White, the civil-rights activist, key figure of the Harlem Renaissance, writer, and political horse trader. This is likely by design rather than circumstance.
Most people outside his inner circle, especially those who mattered the most in the civil-rights movement, didn’t like Walter White very much. He was annoyingly chatty, constantly on the go, prone to bragging about his exploits, miserly at his job as executive secretary of the N.A.A.C.P., and relatively selfish. Moreover, White had a knack for alienating some of his fellow crusaders, W. E. B. Du Bois among them.
White, who was born in Atlanta to Black parents in 1893, used his ability to “pass” as white to his advantage. This would come to haunt him in his later years, but early in his career White relished his role as trickster and charlatan, most of all when he could manipulate white people into telling him about the horrific lynchings and other atrocities they’d committed against Blacks in post-Reconstruction America.
It’s not as if no one has tried to immortalize this life—White even wrote a memoir, A Man Called White, in 1948. But today the history books tend to omit mentions of White. Other attempts to bring this character to the modern era, mostly academic volumes, have fallen on similarly deaf ears. (I even made my own attempt at a White biography after chronicling the Tulsa Race Massacre and the city’s fight for reparations for The Nation in 2002.)
None of this stopped A. J. Baime—best known for his chronicling one of the greatest Le Mans races of all time in Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari, and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans, later adapted into the movie Ford v Ferrari, starring Christian Bale and Matt Damon—from taking up White as a pandemic project. Baime’s treatise, White Lies: The Double Life of Walter F. White and America’s Darkest Secret, is likely the shortest volume on its subject to date. It’s also the best chance at White’s transcendence into popular history.
Civil Rights’ Scarlet Pimpernel?
One could say that Walter F. White, the man, social crusader, and 1940s cultural icon, was birthed in blood, came of age in blood, and spent his life in blood. He was the grandson of former slaves, and his light skin descended through his mother’s grandmother, a slave who gave birth to six children allegedly fathered by her owner, William Henry Harrison, the ninth president of the U.S.
White was raised in Atlanta, the second son of an upwardly mobile middle-class Black family, thinking nothing of his skin color until the Atlanta race riot of 1906, in which a mob of white men descended on the Black section of the city.
“I knew then who I was,” White wrote of the 1906 Atlanta race riot in his autobiography. “I was a Negro, a human being with an invisible pigmentation which marked me a person to be hunted, hanged, abused, discriminated against, kept in poverty and ignorance in order that those whose skin was white would have readily at hand a proof of their superiority. Yet as a boy there in the darkness amid the tightening fright, I knew the inexplicable thing—that my skin was as white as the skin of those who were coming at me.”
White’s penchant for activism was discovered early on by the eminent scholar and writer James Weldon Johnson, who would soon become executive secretary of the N.A.A.C.P. Johnson hired White as an assistant secretary in the burgeoning office in New York, plucking him out of a career selling insurance and placing him in the middle of America’s saddest and most shameful moment: the era when its white citizens made great efforts to kill or remove its Black ones.
“Many readers will find in this book occurrences that will feel impossible to believe,” Baime writes in the introduction, “events that you may think could never have happened in the United States of America. For others, this story will hit closer to home. The difference between these two readers is exactly what White Lies is about. White, Black, and the shades in between.”
“I knew the inexplicable thing—that my skin was as white as the skin of those who were coming at me.”
White’s own odyssey began with a lynching in Tennessee in 1918, after which, instead of allowing the N.A.A.C.P.’s protest to rest with letters to the governor and President Woodrow Wilson, White practically begged Johnson to allow him to “go to the scene and make a first-hand investigation,” he wrote. From there, White “started a phase of work for the association which neither it nor I had contemplated when I was employed.” White would be deployed to nearly every lynching or race massacre that took place from then until the late 1920s, when he took over as executive secretary for the N.A.A.C.P.
Other than what he gleaned through his wily street smarts, White learned practically everything from Johnson. The two shopped at Brentano’s bookstore after lunch at Horn & Hardart, an Automat in Greenwich Village. “Thus began for me a liberal education in contemporary literature,” White wrote, “as Jim [Johnson] either purchased for me or recommended my buying books of fiction, poetry, and history and discussion of social problems which he thought would be of permanent value.”
The two men were also known for their lavish parties in Harlem, during which guests of both races—from composer George Gershwin and bass baritone Paul Robeson to writers Dorothy Parker, Du Bois, H. L. Mencken, and Carl Van Vechten—would sing, dance, and gossip into the night.
Once he ascended to Johnson’s seat, White made powerful friends—and Caesar-like enemies.
New York governor Al Smith recruited White to advise his presidential campaign in 1928, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt had White’s ear during her tenure at the White House. He traveled the world speaking on behalf of the N.A.A.C.P., and testified in Congress in support of federal anti-lynching legislation, which, despite all efforts, still hasn’t passed to this day.
But White lived during the Great Depression and World War II—a time of great austerity—and did so with a flippant attitude. When he cut funding for The Crisis, Du Bois’s journal of African-American affairs in a cost-saving measure, he converted a former supporter into the man who twisted the knife.
With a cadre of young newcomers, including Roy Wilkins and Thurgood Marshall, Du Bois eventually pushed White to the fringes of the N.A.A.C.P. White nearly guaranteed his ouster when he divorced his first wife, Gladys Powell, a Black woman of some standing in the Harlem community with whom he had two children, and married Poppy Cannon, a white socialite originally from South Africa.
By the late 1940s, White, a three-pack-a-day smoker, was in ill health, having suffered two major heart attacks. On March 21, 1955, at the age of 61, after describing to Cannon his exciting first day back at the office following a long period of convalescence, he picked up his latest book manuscript, thumbed through it, and fell to the floor, dead from another massive coronary.
Baime’s book conveys the highlights of White’s life without bogging readers down in the details. But some of the things he misses—the 1919 Omaha race riot, which destroyed parts of the Black neighborhood of the small city, for instance—deserve a cursory examination.
White’s own conflict and social isolation because of his skin color also needs some airing. At best, the “Negro by choice,” as The New York Times once referred to him, was a source of resentment for the many Blacks who knew of him sleeping on Whites Only Pullman train cars or attending events generally reserved for white New York society. At worst, he was mistaken as a white interloper in a Black neighborhood and zinged by a bullet or two.
Still, it’s nothing short of amazing to see, for the first time, White grace the mainstream.
White’s death only highlighted his stature—a profile in The New Yorker, the covers of Time and Ebony—in the early days of the movement. More than a thousand mourners filed past his body, “laid out in a mahogany coffin, covered with white carnations,” at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Harlem. During the funeral, dignitaries from around the world lionized White.
But New York’s Black newspaper the Amsterdam News probably gave him the finest tribute of all: “White’s cocky aggressiveness stayed with him as long as he lived—as did his boyhood vanity. But it was these very qualities that helped to make him the best lobbyist our race has ever produced, and one of the very best of any race.”
Adrian Brune is an American writer based in London. She has written extensively on Black and post-Reconstruction history for The Nation and elsewhere since 2001