(1893–1955), novelist, essayist, civil rights leader, writer and patron of the Harlem Renaissance, and executive secretary of the NAACP.
The son of a mail carrier and one of seven children, Walter Francis White grew up in Atlanta on the border between white and African American neighborhoods. During the Atlanta race riots of September 1906, a white mob nearly burned down his family's home. The event was formative for White, then thirteen, inaugurating his awareness of the meaning of racial identity and influencing his subsequent political and literary careers.
A 1916 graduate of Atlanta University, White worked for Atlanta's Standard Life Insurance Company until 1918, when James Weldon Johnson, then NAACP field secretary, invited him to join the NAACP staff as assistant secretary at its New York City headquarters. Blond-haired and blue-eyed, White was easily able to pass for white and often risked his life to conduct undercover investigations of lynchings. Twelve days into his NAACP job, White was sent to research the circumstances of a lynching in Estill Springs, Tennessee; he himself narrowly escaped being lynched on a trip to Arkansas in 1919. In 1922, the year White married NAACP staff member Leah Gladys Powell, he met writer H. L. Mencken, who encouraged White to try his hand at fiction. White completed the manuscript of Fire in the Flint, about a northern-trained African American physician who returns to his native small-town Georgia, in twelve days. Published by Knopf in 1924, the novel, which ends with the doctor's lynching, was praised for its realistic portrayal of southern life, went through several European editions, and became a modest best-seller. Flight (1926), White's second, less critically acclaimed novel, centers around a young New Orleans woman who crosses over the color line, then later relinquishes racial passing. White's literary accomplishments earned him a 1926 Guggenheim Fellowship, and he moved to southern France intending to produce a third novel; instead, however, he wrote Rope and Faggot: The Biography of Judge Lynch (1929), an important study of the various political, economic, social, and sexual influences of lynching.
White's literary career and his NAACP work were closely intertwined, and throughout the 1920s and 1930s he continued to toil for federal anti-lynching legislation and civil rights while aiding and inspiring Harlem Renaissance artists. Not only did White combine cultural and political leadership, but he also viewed cultural production in a political framework. An advocate of Alain Locke's New Negro metaphor, White helped start the Negro Fellowship Fund to support young writers and used his NAACP contacts to further their careers. In 1931, he replaced Johnson as the NAACP's second African American executive secretary and oversaw the organization through the crucial years following World War II and the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision of May 1954. In addition to a column for the Chicago Defender, White's nonfiction includes A Rising Wind (1945), about African American soldiers during World War II, and his 1948 autobiography, A Man Called White, which details the history of the NAACP under his direction.