Often we look to figures from the past as pioneers in Black History. But many such figures still walk among us – one of them is Mrs. Naomi White. At 92 years young, the retired nurse and equal rights advocate still is just as fierce as when she marched for employees’ rights during the Charleston Hospital Strike of 1969.
A soft-spoken woman whose red hair is an outward symbol of her fiery spirit, Naomi Matthews White walked onto a ward at the Medical College of South Carolina in 1961. She would continue working there until her retirement in 1985. During the interim years she walked into history as well.
Standing up for herself is something Mrs. White has done all her life. As an only child whose mother died when she was just a year old Mrs. White didn’t grow up with siblings. When she had childhood spats with playmates, “I didn’t have any back-up,” she said. More often than not, she was back up for her peers. It carried over into her adulthood.
Getting what she deserved meant speaking up and standing her ground. Pride and confidence were instilled in her by her father, Robert Jerome Matthews who worked 50 years as a custodian at the College of Charleston. Her grandfather, John Hasell was one of the city’s Black police officers during the 1920’s and 1930’s.
After graduating Immaculate Conception High School in 1945 and marrying the late Frank ‘Bob’ White three years later, Mrs. White began her family that eventually would include six children born to the union. In 1961 she went to work at the Medical College of South Carolina. She recalls incidents when Black nurses who carried the load for patient care, were discriminated against by their white supervisors. Often that discrimination was perpetuated with the help of other Blacks currying favor. Her eight years at the hospital before the strike was a time of periodic conflict, but her reputation as a competent nurse who stood her ground was well known and respected.
She was among those who advocated striking for better pay and working conditions and enlisted other employees to support the effort. When 12 fellow advocates were fired for their unionizing activities, Mrs. White was among the 50 initial strikers to walk off their jobs March 20, 1969 in their support.
There were other more familiar names associated with the historic 110-day strike that helped transform Charleston, which like many communities was experiencing a post World War II business boost by the late 1960s. Still half the city’s predominantly Black population lived below the poverty line. The Black community suffered almost complete subordination with few Black elected officials either in the state legislature or municipal government. Some 1,500 Blacks, mostly women, worked at the Medical College of South Carolina which was among the community’s largest employers. But most only were paid minimum wage or about $1.30 per hour.
Eventually hundreds would join them. Those workers’ action lit a fire that burned into the consciousness of the community a reminder of slavery, Jim Crow, second class citizenship and revolution. Mrs. White, along with Mrs. Mary Moultrie, emerged as a staunch supporters and advocates.
Well into her 80s Mrs. White was as adamant as ever about justice and equality. For her, the 1969 hospital workers strike launched a 40-year struggle for workers’ rights. So when 1199 National Union organizers asked her to take part in the effort to organize local sanitation workers, Mrs. White answered the call. She and the late Mary Moultrie volunteered to man the Charleston office of the 1199 National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees AFSCME, AFL-CIO each week day for several more years.
Still the nurse, Mrs. White these days spends much of her time at home caring for a bedridden son. She laments that the fire which drove her isn’t evident today in more employees at the hospital. In some ways things have regressed since the strike, she said.
“Only a few people like registered nurse Christine Nelson want to be involved. There’s still that fear of retaliation – people are afraid for their jobs. They don’t realize they jeopardize their jobs by not speaking out,” said Mrs. White.
Carolina Alliance for Fair Employment (CAFE) State Board Chairman Leonard Riley said Black workers at MUSC still face disparities in pay and representation in higher level positions. Mary Moultrie was more familiar relative to the historic strike of 1969, but she and Naomi White were joined at the hip, Riley said.
“Mrs. White lived the fight for equal rights and being a voice signifying organization in the workplace. She’s a legend who remains unbowed and unbroken. We’re blessed to still have her with us,” he said.