Edith White, World War II ‘Code Girl’ and Norfolk Academy Librarian who Fought Massive Resistance, Dies at 96Breaking News
tags: segregation, Virginia, womens history, World War 2, school integration
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.
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.
The Whites helped found and lead the Norfolk Committee for Public Schools, which opposed Virginia’s Massive Resistance. 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.
But Edith had a thick skin and just kept going, shrugging off any hateful acts.