WWII codebreaker, school integration advocate Edith Reynolds White dies at 96
By KATHERINE HAFNER | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: June 15, 2020
NORFOLK, Va. (Tribune News Service) – When Forrest “Hap” White was young, a naval officer in a limousine pulled up outside his house in Norfolk’s Algonquin Park neighborhood in full gold braid uniform with a box of chocolates under his arm.
The officer came to the door and asked for Lt. Reynolds. Hap was confused, not knowing a lieutenant or a Reynolds in his home. Then he realized it was his mother. Reynolds was her maiden name.
It was the first time Edith Reynolds White’s family learned about her time in the Navy’s secretive and successful women’s codebreaking unit during World War II.
She and the Navy officer who came to the house chatted about the last time they’d met, during the war. He had traveled to Washington with a dripping wet Japanese codebook recovered out of a sinking submarine. Edith, a shift commander, strung up the book on a clothesline and started cracking the code with the other women in her unit. It would help with efforts in the South Pacific, including the Battles of Leyte Gulf and Philippine Sea.
After meeting her husband shortly after the war, Edie White moved to Norfolk, where she lived for over six decades and became a force in local education, literary, arts and civil rights scenes. She helped fight Virginia’s Massive Resistance to school integration, brushing aside the torrent of threats that followed.
White died June 6 in Williamsburg from complications following surgery. She was 96.
Her life was marked, family and friends say, by an unfailingly positive outlook on the world and its potential to change for the better.
“She taught me to look at things from a different perspective," said daughter Elizabeth “Barry” White, 66. “And she also gave me her sense of justice and outrage at injustice.”
Edith Reynolds was born in New Jersey in 1923.
She lost her father at 16 and relatives wanted her to stay home and care for her mother, but she wanted to go to college, Barry said. She’d skipped two grades and was just 16 when she convinced Vassar College -- then a women’s only school -- to give her a scholarship.
In the summers she did some modeling for department stores in New York.
Edith was 20 and in her senior year when she received a summons from the Navy, which had been seeking women with good math and language skills for its new WAVES unit -- Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service.
“Your country needs you, young ladies,” a Navy captain told Edith and a few of her classmates, according to “Code Girls,” a 2017 book by Liza Mundy about the unit.
Soon she was staying in a brownstone in Georgetown and training in cryptography. When not working to break Japanese codes, the women went to USO dances and bars together, Mundy wrote.
“One group agreed that if anybody ordered a vodka Collins when they were out at a bar together, that would be their signal that a stranger was showing too much curiosity about their work, and they were all to disperse to the ladies’ room and then flee."
They worked “around the clock and often didn’t know whether to eat breakfast or dinner when they finished a shift.”
WAVES twice earned commendations for breaking Japanese codes that led to American victories in the Pacific, Hap, now 72, said.
“If there’s a theme to mom’s life, she learned in the Navy what a group of college educated women could do if they focused on a problem,” he said.
After the war, Edith was posted to a tuberculosis hospital in New York, where she worked with young men who had contracted the illness while on duty in the South Pacific, according to an oral history interview with Old Dominion University. She helped them transition to life afterward.
There, she met Dr. Forrest White, who was finishing his medical internship. They married in 1946 and moved to Norfolk a few years later. It was his hometown.
When the doctor showed his wife and two young children around Lafayette Park one day, Edith pointed to a “whites only” sign and said, according to Hap, “This has got to change if this is going to be my home city.”
Soon she was fighting for better facilities at Booker T. Washington High School, which was then for black students only.
The Whites helped found and lead the Norfolk Committee for Public Schools, which opposed Virginia’s Massive Resistance, a group of laws that opposed school integration. A committee lawsuit helped force the desegregation of six Norfolk schools.
Hap remembers driving around to pick up black voters and help them fill out registration forms exactly right, in a time when white officials would find any discrepancy to invalidate a black person’s right to vote.
Their work -- in addition to having black friends over for tea -- drew the ire of neighbors and community members. Some women stopped playing tennis with Edith.
Burning crosses showed up on their doorstep. Barry doesn’t remember seeing a fire, but was struck by the scar one left on the lawn.
One day, Hap said, his sister came home from school and asked their mother what an N-word lover was.
“Mom said you can’t change what the words mean to other people, but you’re in control of what they mean to you. Tell them, ‘I’m a lover not a hater. I feel real sorry for you haters.’”
The family consistently received threatening phone calls at home. Barry said she remembers her mother never returning any of the callers’ anger, but rather deflecting it with light humor.
“She’d start chatting away about her day,” Barry said with a laugh. “She’d say, ‘Oh dear do you have a cold? You sound congested.’”
Edith also helped organize Norfolk’s League of Women Voters and campaigned for a woman running against the powerful “Byrd Machine.”
She also returned to the workforce for a time, when her husband developed polio soon after their marriage. It took time for him to recover.
Hap recalled hearing about how she went in for an interview at a bank where a several-page test, intended to take an hour or so, had applicants match up numbers. They were shocked when she finished in minutes.
“I’ve had some training in pattern recognition,” she responded, according to her son’s version.
Edith also had a lifelong passion for art and literature, making abstract watercolor paintings, endowing the ODU Literary Festival and serving as the first woman board member of the Virginia Symphony. She wrote book reviews for The Virginian-Pilot, traveled to local schools as a storyteller and was passionately involved with the Larchmont United Methodist Church.
For two decades she worked as head librarian at Norfolk Academy, where students used to call her “Comrade Edie,” Hap said.
“I’d forgotten that,” Patricia Hume, a retired longtime English teacher who worked with Edith, recently said with a laugh. “She didn’t mince words. She was feisty.”
Hume said Edith “kind of took me under her wing” when the young teacher started at the school in the late 70s, giving her extra tickets to local shows and a heads-up on the latest new books at the library. She encouraged Hume to go to her neighborhood council meeting and become civically engaged.
“She was always so curious about people,” said Hume, now 73. “She wanted to know who you were. I admired her so much in addition to liking her.”
Hume said when hearing of Edith’s passing, she instantly had memories from decades earlier: "how brilliant she was, how kind she was to me, how dedicated she was just to making life better to people she was around.”
On her 80th birthday cake was written “It could be worse,” because she was always saying that, Barry said.
“We used to call her the terminal optimist,” she added with a laugh.
Edith lived in Norfolk most of her life but moved to the Morningside of Williamsburg assisted living facility in recent years to be closer to Hap. She left behind four children, eight grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
“Mom was ahead on the arc of history curve,” Hap said. “She was way ahead of her generation and she brought other people along.”
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