For many relatives, friends and friends of friends who left the South’s cotton fields and farms for factories in Chicago, Leola White’s home was the first stop on the way to a better life.
Over the decades, her sister, three brothers and a couple of hundred more people journeyed north from Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee, stopping to sleep on her sofa or spare bed until they saved enough money for a place of their own. Mrs. White’s South Side home was their portal to where African-Americans seemed to be able to get ahead.
“She was the Harriet Tubman of our family,” said her granddaughter Jaquie Algee. “Everyone, literally, who came to Chicago came to her house.”
Mrs. White, 102, died Monday at the Roseland home of her daughter Ann Anderson.
Though she moved to Chicago in 1946, she grew up in Natchez, Miss., one of 10 children born to Anna and Claude Williams, a cook for a white family.
Young Leola had to leave school in the fourth grade to help pick cotton and take care of her siblings and ailing mother. After becoming a mother herself, she was paid to be a wet nurse for a pair of twins at an antebellum home where, her granddaughter said, “She could not go in the front door. She always had to go in the back.”
Late in life, Mrs. White attended a family reunion near that home. When relatives decided to take her on a tour, she had to stop to compose herself.
“We go to the front door, and she started crying, and she said, ‘I’ve never been in the front door of the place,’ ” Algee said. “And the white lady who gave the tour, she started crying. Everybody was crying.”
But Mrs. White kept up her ties to Natchez. She’d drive down South a few times a year to visit family, taking young relatives along for the ride.
“They’d fry up a bunch of chicken, make pound cake and get a loaf of Holsum bread and put it in a shoebox” for the journey, Algee said.
The trips in the 1950s and ’60s were eye-opening, she said. When they approached the tip of southern Illinois — closer to Mississippi than Chicago — Mrs. White told Algee and other young family members they couldn’t stop at any restaurants or restrooms. Soon, they’d see saw water fountains where they weren’t allowed to get a drink.
In Chicago, Mrs. White — who was the oldest living member of First Corinthian Baptist Church, 7500 S. Halsted — worked for 31 years on an assembly line at Young Spring & Wire on the South Side. She also had a side job.
“She sold Avon for about 40 years, and every dime she made from Avon, she gave back to the church,” her granddaughter said.
“I would not have been the pastor of that church if it had not been for Leola White,” said Pastor James H. Thomas. “She was the one that encouraged me, pushed me along to be the best pastor I could be.”
She and her first husband were divorced. Later, she married Tommie White, a construction worker who called her “Doll” and, according to her granddaughter, “loved the ground she walked on.”
On Sundays, she was always resplendent. “To dress for church, from head to toe, everything had to match,” Algee said.
“She would have on a different Sunday hat every Sunday,” said her niece Chiquita Shelton.
She loved the color purple. Even her lipstick was mauve.
Mrs. White enjoyed gospel music by the Caravans and the Rev. James Cleveland, and she fondly recalled a concert she attended at DuSable High School with a knockout performance by the Soul Stirrers when Sam Cooke was a member.
During the Michael Jordan era, Mrs. White occasionally turned to prayer to assist the Chicago Bulls.
“She had a rag she would just wave when Michael would hit a basket, and she would pray for him, ‘Lord, I know you can fix it,’ ” her granddaughter said.
She also was a fan of former Bulls coach Phil Jackson, Algee said. When he was on TV, she’d say, “ ‘Walk pretty for me now, walk pretty.’ She liked Phil Jackson’s walk.”
Visitation is planned for 5 to 8 p.m. Friday at Evans Funeral home, 6453 S. Ashland. A prepast and wake will be held from 9:30 a.m. until the start of an 11 a.m. funeral on Saturday at First Corinthian Baptist Church, 7500 S. Halsted.
Mrs. White is to be cremated. Her granddaughter said the urn will be placed in a cabinet that displays her many awards for being a top seller for Avon.