By Sean E. Andres
Updated 29 July 2021, with special thanks to Leslie Brunetta for corrections on later information *
A New Baby in New Richmond
Adina’s parents, Thomas D. White and Georgianna Walker, were both born in Kentucky. In their youth, they moved to New Richmond, Ohio, an abolitionist town outside of Cincinnati. In October 1862, Adina was born and lived just outside of New Richmond, a mile and a half away from President Grant’s birthplace, with her mother’s lighter skin and as such walked through the world differently from her father but noticed that world, too. This colorism and the trauma her parents endured having possibly been enslaved in Kentucky (or at least helping Black Americans escape slavery) ** informed Adina’s view of the world, the unseen and seen and the unheard and heard.
Artistic ability came naturally to Adina as a child. She told Pauline Hopkins in a profile, “I used to cut figures on everything that came in my way when I was a very small child. It always seemed natural for me to do this since I used to make toy tea cups and miniature baskets out of peach stones.” Wood carving, Pauline Hopkins wrote, took “patience, perseverance, stability of effort—for wood is not plastic and it requires a strong imagination to evolve dainty fancies out of its hard, unyielding substance—strong imagination and firm, steady fingers.”
Around 1876, the family removed to Cincinnati’s west end to a tenement on Barr St. when Adina started high school. While a senior at Gaines High School in 1881, Adina began appearing in society pages, along with her best friend Consuelo Clark. While at Gaines, the supervisor of drawing for Cincinnati Public Schools Christine Sullivan noticed Adina’s work, she suggested Adina attend the Cincinnati Art Academy, where she briefly trained under the Pitmans. But Adina already had natural talents, and she only took a semester or two with them while at the Academy.
During this time, Adina became involved in something New Richmond didn’t have: clubwomen’s activities – for spiritual, social, and intellectual development – often with Consuelo. Though she opened her doors on 8th St. to suitors on New Years Eve of 1884 as a sort of societal coming out, she never showed any desire to marry. She invested her time, energy, and talent into society instead, all while her family moved around, which was quite common, from Barr to 8th to 7th to Sherman.
Throughout the next 13 years she was a member of clubs such as Excello, Aurora Circle, culinary Elephant Club, literary Acme, and literary Whittier Club, which she co-founded with Consuelo. While the Whittier Club, which had meeting themes such as anti-slavery poetry and “negro lore,” grew with members such as Powhatan Beaty, Adina founded another club, the John Brown Society, and was elected secretary.
Since high school, Adina had been active in the Union Baptist Church and was a Sabbath School teacher. But in 1884, Adina began taking leadership roles where men were holding them. She was elected secretary, the only woman officer, for the Union Baptist Mission School. In March 1885, she was elected secretary of the Western Baptist Sabbath School Union at the convening at the First Baptist Church in Cumminsville.
Adina also began volunteering for and donating art for benefits of the Colored Orphan Asylum in her teens. As she aged, she became more active in leading activities for the asylum, organizing fundraising events, and cooking holiday feasts for the children. She eventually applied to become its primary financial agent for funding the new house but did not get the position. She continued to advance in club society and was elected president of the Ladies Auxiliary Aid to the Humane Bazaar, a week-long benefit for the Ohio Humane Society, which kicked off with a “sacred concert” at the Allen Temple on 9 Nov. 1890, featuring Consuelo’s sister Ernestine singing. This organizing led Colonel DW McClung, president of the Ohio Humane Society, to write Adina to thank her for the Black community’s contributions to the society.
Adina had also organized a fast and prayer before the “Memorial meeting of the colored citizens of Cincinnati,” both at the Allen Temple. The church was a community place, not just of religious practice but of social change and resources. On the day of the memorial meeting, Adina was elected to the resolution subcommittee of the officers. She was the only woman secretary and only woman officer of forty-five people. The committee resolved to officially condemn mob law and the lynchings that they led to, demanding equal laws for Black folks. “By the 250 years of unrequited toil performed by the Negro race in this country by the valor and the bravery, the devotion and the blood of the Negro soldiers and sailors who have in every war done glorious duty for the Nation in the very front ranks of battle,” they wrote. The resolutions were sent to state officials, members of Congress from Ohio, the Supreme Court, and the president. And Adina co-wrote them.
In September 1887 Adina’s brother Thomas, Jr. (“TJ”), sent a telegram to the family from a Chicago prison that he’d been arrested on charges of murder.
TJ had been living in Chicago for some years now, living with childhood friend and supposed current partner Irme (apparently pronounced Irmee based off alternate spellings) Hayes. Now a porter on a Wisconsin Central Railroad Pullman railroad car, at one point TJ tended bar at Winnie Woodson’s saloon on Third Street, below a tenement and next to Winnie’s brothel. But relations between TJ and Winnie had been sour; she owed him for work. Winnie was a notorious Black prostitute in Lodge Alley in Cincinnati. Her son was Harry Woodson, a failed boxer named “Black Diamond.” His career never took off because the one shot he had at fighting a major boxer never happened: John L. Sullivan refused to fight a Black man. Legend is that Harry saved some of the girls from the Cincinnati printing house fire in which fifteen girls lost their lives.
Harry split time between his home in St. Paul, Minnesota, where his wife and son lived, and Chicago, where his mother lived. While in Chicago, he met Hayes and persuaded her to come to his room above the saloon. When TJ returned to an empty home, his friends at the saloon told him that she’s gone up to Harry’s room.
When TJ came up to the room, he found Harry asleep in his bed and Irme awake. When he and Irme began bickering about her coming up there, Harry awoke and pulled a revolver from under his pillow, and shot at TJ twice, missing TJ. The police in the street below heard and came running. While TJ tried to wrestle the revolver from him with Harry’ hand around his neck, Irme tried to take it from both, and the gun fired, shooting her in the left hand. TJ gained control of the gun and shot in Harry’s direction two times, one bullet hitting him in the head, instantly killing him. The police entered to find Harry falling to the floor, and TJ fled in fright while Irme sobbed in the corner, holding her hand. Both TJ and Irme were arrested.
While TJ was calm about it, Irme was livid, calling out that she came from a respectable family, her father being a judge of the criminal court on Jefferson Street in Louisville. After a few days delay in the trial, TJ was brought before the Grand Jury on seventeen indictments. The trial consumed the family and their fierce defense of TJ, and the family went to support him in court that December, along all of the Black residents in the Third and Fourth Street area. The prosecutor tried to find inconsistencies with the statements, likely tricking TJ into false confessions. But they watched TJ sentenced to five years of prison for murder and sent to the penitentiary at Joliet, Illinois.
On 2 May, 1890, TJ died in prison. When the Commercial Gazette reported it, they said he was serving time for burglary, but Adina wasn’t having any misinformation out there. She wrote a pointed correction for the editor to publish. “He was not sent there for burglary,” she stated. “He was not a thief. […] Thomas White only did what any other man who valued that most precious of God’s gifts—life—would have done under the circumstances. He slew his assailant to save his own life. Where is the man who would not have done likewise?” He was buried at Union Baptist Cemetery, where the Fossetts also lie in rest. Surely this sorrow grieved Adina but inspired her to seek justice for Black people in the US.
Around 1890, Cleveland’s Julia Ringwood Coston sought out the talents of Ernestine Clark and Adina for a new magazine, Ringwood’s Afro-American Journal of Fashion, the first magazine aimed at Black women. While the magazine did have fashion in it, it was certainly more. The women were inspired by and connected to the Black women club movement. With other Black women, many of whom had mixed-race backgrounds, Adina enlisted as a section editor. While Coston edited at large, Mary Church Terrell edited the biographical section, Adina edited the art section, Ernestine Clark Nesbitt edited “Mother’s Corner,” Susie I. Lankford Shorter edited “Plain Talk to Our Girls,” M. E. Lambert edited the literary section, and S. Mitchell edited the home section.
In this magazine that ran from 1891 through 1894, Adina could apply her families’ experiences rooted in white violence on the Black body and make these issues a public talking point. By controlling the narrative, they subverted the traditional white supremacist narratives that lighter-skinned Black Americans were offspring of rape of white women by Black men. “In this particular turn-of-the-century publication,” Noliwe M. Rooks writes, “the offspring born of such violence would rewrite the silence surrounding the rape of enslaved African American women in order to forge a historical link between silence, rape, and generational memory. At the same time, their project had ideological consequences for women of differing classes, ages, and geographical areas of the United States.”
Indeed, the women recognized their advantage of light-colored skin and at times reinforced colorism onto dark-skinned women, arguing “that this ‘other’ group of African American women had been so damaged by a past that included enslavement along with its unhealthy levels of sexuality, at least one more generation would have to pass before there was any hope for their redemption,” writes Rooks. They insisted that “younger, poorer, darker African American women could not hope to escape the sexual legacies of enslavement.” But ultimately, the “the psychic cost to blacks, though paid, was incalculable and enduring.” The magazine’s content – though flawed – was progressive, new, and necessary at the time.
Rooks further explains, “In exploring the connections the magazine makes between silence, rape, and generational memory, it becomes clear that Ringwood’s Journal is a tangible result of a process through which African American women, one or two generations removed from slavery, attempted to create a self-conscious culture to grapple with the meaning and place of their childhood histories of enslavement, their generalized association with rape and violence (even if they had not been enslaved), and their place within U.S. culture. […] To be clear, this text is very different from the slave narratives that define the familiar genre that privileges the movement of African Americans from slavery to freedom. Yet the direct experience of and legacy from the trauma engendered by enslavement figures prominently in the magazine.” Adina was Cincinnati’s sales representative for Ringwood’s Journal and received regular visits from Coston and her husband.
Carving Her Own Destiny
While she led clubwomen’s movements from Cincinnati, her woodcarving had been more prominently exhibited. For example, she exhibited a carved frame at the 1888 Cincinnati Centennial Exposition, which was sold for $75 when it ended that November. After leaving the Art Academy’s School of Design, she worked at a furniture manufacturer, carving. She was “among the best wood-carvers in the State,” The Commercial Gazette said of her. “She is also considerable of a philosopher and inclined to literary research.”
For her company, Adina carved a remarkable piece for the Columbian Exposition of 1893 (“World’s Fair”). Before the company sent the piece to the World’s Fair, it was displayed in the window of the piano store Smith & Nixon. It was a cherry table with a bouquet of wildflowers carved into the center, but she received no official credit in her name, only the manufacturer’s. Adina carved everything from doors to mirror and picture frames, wall panels, and more. “Not in the picturesque south nor the cultured north have our specimens of negro talent in art come, but from the rude, vigorous, hurrying west!” wrote Hopkins in the Boston Globe covering Adina.
In 1894, she carved altar furniture for the Bethel AME Church at Indianapolis before heading to St. Louis for her new job as drawing instructor at St. Louis public schools, a job she likely got as a connection to her best friend Consuelo’s father Peter H. Clark. In the Gothic altar, depicted above, a passion vine wraps around a cross with a lying lamb at the base of the cross. It had been a gift from Reverend Andre Chambers in honor his wife Lettie. When I contacted the Bethel AME Church historian, she did not know what happened to that altar specifically. What else Adina carved for them I don’t know, but it could have been part of a larger set now housed at the recently moved church. When Adina wasn’t coming home to visit, Adina’s mother visited her in St. Louis instead. Before the new school year in 1897, Adina resigned and returned to Cincinnati, working as an independent carver.
When she moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1900 with the intent of earning enough to study in the Boston school of art and then in Europe, she was known as the only Black woman wood carver. Her mother had possibly been living in Cambridge by this point, while her father had been living in Cincinnati. Her father Thomas died in November 1901 from a cerebral hemorrhage and was buried with his son at Union Baptist Cemetery. But surely – as furniture and décor were being carved by machines on factory lines, rather than hand-carved, during the industrialization process – making a living as a woodcarver wasn’t successful anymore.
Adina struggled in Cambridge to make a living solely as a woodcarver, so she diversified her income – once again being a news agent, as she was for Ringwood’s Journal; a lunch restaurant owner; and a florist, transferring the art of finding the most natural beauty in the hewn flora she delicately carved into works of art with flowers. Rather than fundraising for charities, she was now able to contribute funds.
In Cambridge, Adina lived alone, with friends, and with her mother. Though Georgianna, who died in August 1913, was buried at Union Baptist Cemetery with Adina’s brother and father, Adina died in December 1930 and is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge. The money in her will went to various family members and charities in Cincinnati – including the Colored Orphan Asylum and Union Baptist Church. Even at the end, after thirty years, her heart was in Cincinnati.
Adina E. White carved more than wood. She carved a future for Black men and women, younger and older than her. Ringwood’s Journal gave Adina and her friends a national platform and paved the way for Black women like Priscilla Jane Thompson and Clara Ann Thompson to publish and captivate an audience with their own experiences and their families’ – however dark their skin may be.
You can contribute funds in Adina’s honor to a memorial for three civil rights women in Cambridge, which includes Adina.
* This article has been updated to correct errors in living and familial situations.
** We cannot automatically assume anyone who was Black below the Mason Dixon Line was enslaved prior to 1861; however, circumstances surrounding Adina’s parents indicate that they may have been enslaved as children or were a part of the Undergraound Railroad as free Black Americans. New Richmond and the northern Kentucky area across the river was particularly well-known for abolition, freedmen, formerly enslaved, and the Underground Railroad.
- US Census Records, via FamilySearch
- Williams Cincinnati Directory, via Cincinnati & Hamilton County Public Library
- Cambridge Directory, via Archive.org
- Indianapolis Leader
- Cincinnati Commercial [Gazette]
- Cincinnati Enquirer
- Cleveland Gazette
- Detroit Plainsdealer
- Chicago Tribune
- Chris Hanlin’s entries on FindAGrave (here’s Thomas J‘s)
- Ladies’ Pages by Noliwe M. Rooks
- American Catholic Tribune
- The Appeal
- Noted Negro Women by Monroe Alphus Majors
- Boston Globe
- “Famous Women of the Negro Race” by Pauline Hopkins in the Colored American Magazine, Sep. 1902
- Cambridge Chronicle
- Leslie Brunetta’s entry at Mount Auburn Cemetery’s website