The Nation’s Largest African American Video Oral History Collection Mobile search icon Mobile close search icon
Advanced Biography Search
Mobile navigation icon Close mobile navigation icon

Elyse White

Medical social worker and travel agent Elyse White was born on October 1, 1908 in Roanoke, Virginia to Julia Johnson, a school teacher, and William D. Woods, a minister. Graduating from Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C. in 1926, White graduated with her B.A. degree from Howard University in 1930. In 1942, White received her post graduate degree from Catholic University in Washington, D.C.

White went on to become a social investigator for the New York City Department of Welfare. In 1950, White began working as a medical social worker at Fordham Hospital in New York. Continuing her education, White received a degree from the New School of Social Research in New York in 1952, and then worked at Lincoln Hospital until 1965. White then took a job with the New York Board of Education as an attendance teacher.

In 1970, White started a third career as a travel agent, and in 1973, she and her sister embarked on a thirty day trip around the world, visiting Europe, Turkey, Israel, India, Japan and Hawaii. Her main love, however, has always been Africa. In 1975, White became a founding member of the African Travel Association (ATA) and began organizing and leading tourist expeditions to Africa. Over the next thirty years, White (who traveled to twenty-five African nations and over eighty countries around the world) made it possible for countless Americans to visit Africa and understand African culture. In 1998, the government of Ghana “enstooled” her as an Ashante Queen Mother for her dedication and promotion of the African continent.

White passed away on May 4, 2008 at the age of 99.

White was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on February 22, 2007.

Accession Number

A2007.071

Sex

Female

Interview Date

2/22/2007

Last Name

White

Maker Category
Schools

Lucretia Mott Elementary School

Paul Laurence Dunbar High School

Catholic University of America

New School for Social Research

First Name

Elyse

Birth City, State, Country

Roanoke

HM ID

WHI12

Favorite Season

Christmas

State

Virginia

Favorite Vacation Destination

Jamaica

Favorite Quote

Don't Let Anything Defeat You.

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

New York

Birth Date

10/1/1908

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

New York

Country

United States

Favorite Food

Chitterlings

Death Date

5/4/2008

Short Description

Travel agent and medical social worker Elyse White (1908 - 2008 ) was a founding member of the African Travel Association (ATA) and was ‘enstooled’ as an Ashante Queen Mother by the Ghanaian government for her dedication and promotion of the African continent.

Employment

African Travel Association (ATA)

Fordham Hospital

Lincoln Hospital

New York City Board of Education

New York City Department of Welfare

Favorite Color

Green

Timing Pairs
0,0:930,16:2232,34:3441,51:4278,60:22460,350:25860,414:41424,619:43096,647:48816,755:56178,817:62871,956:63841,967:74873,1083:75358,1090:84667,1166:85690,1179:91354,1229:93894,1257:112224,1440:113126,1450:113536,1456:114028,1463:115258,1485:115586,1493:117964,1538:118374,1544:127906,1631:129451,1650:139852,1767:148125,1848:148465,1853:148805,1858:149145,1863:153140,1901:153840,1909:154540,1918:155040,1924:168616,2047:169020,2052:169828,2061:174668,2121:185056,2284:189386,2388:189791,2393:194732,2494:227074,2863:230140,2884$0,0:3685,66:4025,71:4620,81:5130,88:9550,162:10655,176:12440,198:20156,251:22478,285:23338,297:23682,302:24198,310:36410,499:36840,505:43371,524:43816,530:57255,744:61450,776:62250,794:89586,1170:91154,1180:99688,1348:105230,1412:138370,1782
DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Elyse White's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Elyse White lists her favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Elyse White describes her mother's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Elyse White describes her father's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Elyse White talks about her maternal and paternal grandparents

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Elyse White describes her mother's childhood

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Elyse White talks about her father's rental properties

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Elyse White describes her childhood neighborhood in Roanoke, Virginia

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Elyse White recalls moving to Washington, D.C. as a child

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Elyse White describes Henry Street in Roanoke, Virginia

Tape: 1 Story: 11 - Elyse White recalls attending High Street Baptist Church in Roanoke, Virginia

Tape: 1 Story: 12 - Elyse White remembers her father's death from influenza in 1920

Tape: 1 Story: 13 - Elyse White recalls her father's involvement in the Independent Order of Red Men

Tape: 1 Story: 14 - Elyse White talks about being mistaken for white

Tape: 1 Story: 15 - Elyse White recalls her classmates at Lucretia Mott Elementary School in Washington, D.C.

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Elyse White talks about the Howard University Players

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Elyse White remembers attending Lucretia Mott Elementary School

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Elyse White talks about her experiences of travelling abroad

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Elyse White remembers her childhood aspiration to teach

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Elyse White remembers her experiences during the Great Depression

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Elyse White describes her scholarship to Howard University

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Elyse White recalls her mentors at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Elyse White remembers pledging Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Elyse White describes her graduation from Howard University

Tape: 2 Story: 10 - Elyse White talks about her first teaching position after graduation

Tape: 2 Story: 11 - Elyse White talks about the Works Progress Administration

Tape: 2 Story: 12 - Elyse White describes New York City's Greenwich Village neighborhood in 1935

Tape: 2 Story: 13 - Elyse White describes her work at the City of New York Department of Welfare

Tape: 2 Story: 14 - Elyse White remembers City with Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Elyse White recalls her temporary discharge from the City of New York Department of Welfare

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Elyse White recalls the entertainment and nightlife of New York City's Harlem

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Elyse White describes her career in medical and educational social work

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Elyse White remembers meeting her husband, Clarence White

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Elyse White describes her friendship with Thurgood Marshall

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Elyse White recalls protesting the U.S.S. Nautilus at Groton, Connecticut

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Elyse White remembers her desire to travel after retirement

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Elyse White recalls attending The Catholic University of America after her divorce

Tape: 3 Story: 9 - Elyse White talks about her position as a medical social worker

Tape: 3 Story: 10 - Elyse White talks about founding the Africa Travel Association

Tape: 3 Story: 11 - Elyse White reflects upon her travels in Africa

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Elyse White describes her challenges at the Africa Travel Association

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Elyse White reflects upon integration in the United States

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Elyse White reflects upon the changes that she witnessed in her lifetime

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Elyse White recalls her mentors at Howard University and Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Elyse White reflects upon her life and achievements

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Elyse White lists the honors she has received

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Elyse White reflects upon how she would like to be remembered

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Elyse White describes her hopes for the African American community

Tape: 4 Story: 9 - Elyse White describes her hopes for African countries

Tape: 4 Story: 10 - Elyse White reflects upon her legacy

Tape: 4 Story: 11 - Elyse White talks about her civic involvement in New York City's Harlem

Tape: 4 Story: 12 - Elyse White recalls being arrested in Tunis, Tunisia

Tape: 4 Story: 13 - Elyse White narrates her photographs

DASession

1$1

DATape

1$3

DAStory

14$1

DATitle
Elyse White talks about being mistaken for white
Elyse White recalls her temporary discharge from the City of New York Department of Welfare
Transcript
When you were a child in Roanoke, Virginia, do you remember segregation?$$I do remember well. I was very fair, compared to my sisters [Lucille Woods and Evelyn Woods] and brothers [William Woods, Jr. and Gregory Woods]. They were light-skinned, but I looked like white. And so the--I remember when my friend, we would go to deliver laundry in the white neighborhoods. They'd say, "What are you doing with that white child? Why don't you take her back to her folks?" (Laughter) And she, and my friend would say she's--of course they didn't use the term black then; they used the term Negro: "She's Negro." "Oh no, she's not." And they would start fighting, and I would run and hide (laughter). I was a real coward (laughter).$$Now how old was your friend, and how old were you?$$Well, she must have been about nine. I was about seven. But I, I was not going to stay until the bitter end (laughter).$$Did you understand what was going on? Did you understand that you were (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous) Well--$$--light-skinned black?$$Not really. I--that was the closest that I came to--because, actually, as you know, there are many very fair blacks in Virginia, in Washington [D.C.], wherever, so that it was not a revelation. And many of my relatives, they ranged in color from snow white to jet black (laughter). So I had a very close association with the color, not in an unfriendly way, but I was not fazed by it.$$Were there any other family members who, that you know of that passed for white who went off and lived their lives in an--$$Actually--$$--easier way?$$--in, in, in later years, some members of my family are passing right now for white (laughter). But they, they married white; their children are white; and to all intents and, and purposes they are white because that's how they look, and that's the association that they have grown up with. It's not a purposeful removal from the black race, but it's like a, what shall you say (unclear) the state of the art that brought about this state of things.$$Did you ever consider living white?$$I really did not. It never occurred to me. Because many times I have been mistaken for white, and they say, "Oh, you know, those other people--," (unclear) oh, and when I went to work for the Department of Welfare [City of New York Department of Welfare; City of New York Department of Social Services] in New York City [New York, New York], I was asked, "Do you object to working with--," at that time it was Negro people. I said, "Well, I can hardly object. I'm a Negro myself," (laughter). And the lady turned about twenty colors (laughter). So it's been a source of, of amusement I think more than anything else. But I don't--it never occurred to me that that--because all of my friends--I mean I, I was black. I grew up black. My traditions were black. I knew very little about the white race.$You're going to just complete the story you were telling me about your days as a social worker in Williamsburg, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn [New York].$$Yes, I was assigned to a territory in Brooklyn known as Williamsburg. And I did not have any black people on my caseload, which is a surprise to many people, because they thought that blacks were the primary recipients of, of welfare. I had Polish; I had Italian; I had Jewish; and I, I think I had may, out of seventy-five, I might have had one black family. But among other people, I had a Mr. Newman [ph.], and Mr. Newman looked very able bodied to me. So I said, "Mr. Newman, why aren't you working?" And he grumbled and mumbled something. So I said well, "I'm gonna close your case because I think you are able to work, and you are unlawfully on welfare." So I closed his case, and all hell broke loose (laughter). I think Mr. Newman was with Murder, Incorporated [Murder, Inc.] and politically well-connected. And then the supervisor came to me, and she was trembling; she was white and trembling, and she said, "Oh, you shouldn't have closed his case." And so the--I think the political group demanded that I be fired, so temporarily she let me go [from the City of New York Department of Welfare; City of New York Department of Social Services]. But they investigated, and they found that I had not accepted bribes, and therefore they had to reinstate me. But anyway, it was--and so later someone told me, another supervisor who inherited my caseload, she said, "You know you were servicing Murder, Incorporated (laughter), and the man whose case you closed was a member." See, they would get on welfare to substantiate their way of live, living, that they were all, that they were indigents, blah, blah, blah.