Hattie Mae Whiting White, first Black elected to public office in Houston in the twentieth century, daughter of David Wendell and Hattie (Gooden) Whiting, was born at Huntsville, Texas, on May 22, 1916. When she was six, she moved to Houston with her mother and stepfather. She entered public school there and graduated valedictorian from Booker T. Washington High School. She then attended Houston Colored Junior College (the forerunner to Texas Southern University) and graduated with honors from Prairie View State Normal and Industrial College (now Prairie View A&M University) in 1936. After teaching at Cameron, Jasper, and Prairie View, she returned to Houston, where in 1941 she married Charles E. White, an optometrist, and settled down as a housewife and the mother of five children.
In the early 1950s White began to take an active role in civic affairs. She served as president of the William Miller Junior High School PTA, became the first Black member of the Metropolitan Council of the Houston YWCA, and sat on the board of the Houston Association for Better Schools. After she appeared on local television as an advocate of school desegregation in 1956, African Americans and liberal Whites encouraged her to become a candidate for the school board of the Houston Independent School District. White entered the race in 1958 and defeated her two White opponents. Her victory prompted a cross-burning on her lawn a few days after the election. Undeterred, White became one of the most controversial members of the board and generally the lone voice and only vote supporting desegregation and other progressive policies. In 1961 she easily won reelection. During her third term, beginning in 1964, she was part of a liberal coalition that included Gertrude Barnstone and Asberry B. Butler, the second African American elected to the Houston School Board.
White served on the school board for nine years as an outspoken and often controversial critic of the conservative majority that dominated the board during this period. She constantly pressured the board to implement an effective desegregation plan, to accept federal funds for education, and to improve the quality of education in the district’s schools. In 1967 she was defeated in her efforts to win another term in a campaign dominated by charges that she advocated busing to achieve racial balance in Houston’s schools. Following an unsuccessful bid for a seat in the Texas Legislature in 1968, White retired from active politics.
White’s three terms on the school board coincided with the initial efforts of the federal courts to desegregate public schools in Houston. Although White achieved few of her objectives, she did help convince the district to accept federal funds, she witnessed some improvement in the status of Black employees in the district, and she kept the people of Houston informed about the issues before the board. Most importantly, her election in 1958 demonstrated that African American could win political office in Houston, and it helped promote increased political activity among the city’s minorities.
Following her political career, White returned to teaching and retired at the age of seventy. Later in her life she accrued the public recognitions that her accomplishments merited. She received the Houston YWCA’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and, most notably, the Houston ISD district headquarters building was renamed the Hattie Mae White Administration Building in her honor. After its demolition in 2006, a new headquarters building was named the Hattie Mae White Educational Support Center.
White died at Methodist Hospital in Houston on July 30, 1993. At her funeral her old friend and colleague on the school board Gertrude Barnstone observed, “She had more courage, more intelligence than…anyone else I know.”
The Handbook of Texas Women project has its own dedicated website and resources.
Chandler Davidson, Biracial Politics: Conflict and Coalition in the Metropolitan South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1972). Houston Chronicle, August 1, 2, 1993; February 14, 2011. William Henry Kellar, Make Haste Slowly: Moderates, Conservatives, and School Desegregation in Houston (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1999). Hattie Mae Whiting White, Interview by author, July 16, 1981. Hattie Mae Whiting White, Oral History Interview, August 9, 1974 (Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public Library).
Activism and Social Reform
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