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Smith Libraries Exhibits

Jane White

Jane White, Class of 1944, served as the president of the student House of Representatives in 1943, making her the first African American elected to serve in a government position at Smith.

Jane White was born on October 30, 1922 to Walter and Leah Gladys (Powell) White. The Whites stood among the elites of the Harlem Renaissance. Walter White, a native of Atlanta, Georgia, rose through the ranks of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to become national secretary of the organization in 1931. He published several acclaimed works, including Rope and Faggot (1929), an analysis of lynching funded by a Guggenheim fellowship, the novels The Fire in the Flint (1924) and Flight (1926), and his autobiography A Man Called White (1948). By many accounts an exceptionally beautiful woman, Gladys White had been employed as a stenographer at the New York office of the NAACP and had a rich musical heritage from her father, a Jubilee singer, which she put to good use as a performer in a Broadway musical Deep River (1926). Known as the "White House of Harlem," their apartment in the fashionable Sugar Hill neighborhood served as the setting for a range of cultural and social evenings. As children, Jane and her brother Walter Carl Darrow, born in 1927, absorbed the artistic and intellectual influence of their parents as well as such regular guests as James Weldon Johnson, Paul and Eslanda Robeson, Carl Van Vechten, and George Gershwin. Jane's career as an actress and her brother's work as an opera singer and television writer indicate the lasting impact of this creative milieu.

Jane White's education reflected Walter White's political philosophy. Looking to integrate elite educational institutions, which often remained exclusively white in the socially separate 1920s, 30s, and 40s, he negotiated admission of his daughter to the Ethical Culture Schools of New York City and later, with the cooperation of Smith President Emeritus William Allan Neilson, to Smith College. In college, Jane majored in Sociology in order to follow in the path of her father's social activism, but she maintained a stronger passion for the arts. She minored in music, studying classical voice with Anna Hamlin, and participated in extracurricular dance and fencing.

To read an autobiographical essay by Jane White, see "Life As An Actress: A Mystery Story".

Jane White's papers are in the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College. To learn more about her life, see the finding aid for the collection at: