James T. White was a man who made strong choices throughout his life. He was a man who could have chosen an easier path, but he followed the way he believed God laid out for him. White was born in New Providence, Indiana on August 25, 1837. His parents were James and Catherine. James White Sr. listed his occupation as laborer on the 1850. U.S. Census in Jeffersonville, Clark County, Indiana. They lived in a majority African American neighborhood at the time. At some point after 1850, the White family moved to Indianapolis. On the 1860 U.S. Census, Jame White Sr. once again identified himself as a farmer with real estate valued at $700 and personal estate of $75. Other house hold members were Catherine: age 43, Henry H. age 22 a Methodist preacher, James, Nancy, Reuben and Augustus. On his draft registration for the Civil War, young James listed his occupation as farmer. He also identified himself as married. Although not drafted, he chose to go South in order to help the freedmen.
Although his older brother Henry was a Methodist minister, James chose to join the Baptist Church. By the age of twenty one he had become a minister and was sent to the Consolidated American Baptist Convention held in St. Louis, Missouri in the spring of 1865. While attending a series of these meetings, he was invited to Helena, Arkansas where he became pastor of the Second Baptist Church in Helena. Colonel Charles Bentzoni of the 56th United States Colored Infantry was in command of Helena then. Bentzoni, a Prussian immigrant, had proved to be a champion of equal rights for the newly freed slaves in Helena and the area. He and his men had helped with schools and providing protection from returning Confederate veterans who were unhappy with the situation. The Second Baptist met in a government stable, but Colonel Bentzoni soon permitted them to move into the old Cumberland Church. It was here that services were held for two years until White was able to build a small house of worship.
In 1867 White organized an Arkansas Missionary Baptist Convention in the state capital of Little Rock. By the next year, there was a call to write a new constitution for Arkansas. Delegates were elected and James White was among eight African American delegates to the convention. He was a strong advocate for enfranchisement and opposed the poll tax. Serving the 11th District of Phillips and Monroe counties, White was elected to the House of Representatives. He was reelected to the House twice and then elected to the State Senate. Reverend R.B. White, his brother, represented Pulaski County during this time. James was defeated in campaigns for legislature in1873 and 1881.
At the same time, he continued to work as a minister and succeeded in building two new churches. One was in Helena and the other was in Little Rock. The church in Little Rock was destroyed by fire, but rebuilt. White also organized the first Baptist District Association for Arkansas. In 1874, he was attacked by a group of Democrats and thrown into the Mississippi River near Helena. Undaunted, James White continued to work for equal rights and the Republican Party. The year 1874 was a dangerous year n Arkansas as the two sides of Reconstruction actually came to blows in the Brooks-Baxter War. When Republican Governor Elisha Baxter moved to give former Confederate soldiers the right to vote back, a county judge made Joseph Brooks acting governor. Both groups of Republicans raised militia companies and several bloody battles were fought around Little Rock. When Phillips County Republicans wanted to raise men to fight, White attempted to stop them. He was a man of peace. Brooks would lose in this endeavor, and soon ex-Confederates were voting again. The Democratic Party was on the rise.
Later in 1874, White was elected to a second convention for writing a new state constitution. He would join fellow Helena resident J.J. Hornor at this meeting. While that was going on, he started raising money for a college to be called Helena University. That project failed but eventually Quakers would begin Southland College from a smaller school they had started during the Civil War in Helena. By the mid 1880s, there would be at least five buildings on campus and hundreds of students. It was located in the Lexa area. The college would remain open until 1925 when it was closed. Reverend George Priest of Jonestown, Mississippi and Reverend Moses Proffit of Phillips County both worked with White in order to attract students to Southland from both sides of the river. On the 1880 U.S. Census, James White and his wife Mary were living on Beech Street in Helena.
James White continued to be a strong supporter of education and helped organize public schools in Helena and served as a member of the Helena Public School Board of Directors. White was also a strong supporter of the Free Masons. In 1884 he began to work for the Benevolent and Church Aid Society. Soon White became editor of the Arkansas Review as well. In addition to all of his other duties, he was a delegate at the American National Baptist Convention too. Because of illness, he resigned as pastor of the Second Baptist Church in March 1891 and died March 13, 1892 of pneumonia.
Convention of Baptist Clergymen. Newark Daily Advertiser. Newark, New Jersey. Saturday. May 13, 1865. page 2
Graves, John William. Town and Country: Race Relations and Urban Development in Arkansas 1865-1905. University of Arkansas Press. 1978. Page 48.
Arkansas History Commission, Rev. J.T. White, Summary, Persistence of the Spirit Collection.
The Colored Legislators. Daily Arkansas Gazette (Little Rock, Arkansas) Feb. 1, 1873, page 2.
Works Projects Administration, Slave Narrative: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States form Interviews with Former Slaves, Arkansas Narratives, Part 4, page interviewer: Miss Irene Robertson. Person interviewed Ellis Jefson.
Hon. J.T. White. Morning Republican (Little Rock, Arkansas) Tuesday, February 25, 1873. Volume 6 Issue 274. Page 2.
U.S. Census 1880 Phillips County, Arkansas: Jame T. White