In recognition of March as Women’s History Month, the Middlesex County Museum & Historical Society is honoring Bessida Cauthorne White.
Bessida Cauthorne White is the daughter of the late Randolph Cuyler White and the late Gladys Cauthorne White. A native of Middlesex County, Virginia, she grew up in the town of Urbanna and graduated from St. Clare Walker High School in 1965. She was the valedictorian of her graduating class at St. Clare Walker and served as the President of the Student Council. She received a Bachelor of Science degree in biology from Virginia State College, now Virginia State University, in 1969. At Virginia State, she was the president of Alpha Epsilon Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority and was program chair of the Student Government Association. Ms. White received a Juris Doctorate from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law at the College of William and Mary in 1980. She was the first black person and the first woman to serve as president of the Student Bar Association at College of William and Mary. From those beginnings, she rose like a phoenix, continuing her pattern of being an Agent of Change.
Ms. White is the personification of the Renaissance Woman: a woman who is interested in and knows a lot about many things, a woman knowledgeable and proficient in more than one field, a woman who has broad intellectual interests and is accomplished in areas of the arts, literature, history, culinary arts, academia, and genealogy. She is widely known as an activist, attorney, consultant, genealogist, event planner, and proponent of the arts. She has been an activist for nearly sixty years. Her first act of activism was to integrate the lunch counter at Marshall’s Drug Store in Urbanna in 1962 with the late Ralph Jackson; she continued to sit-in at the lunch counter alone after he graduated. Later, also in the 1960s, she became a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Black Panther Party. Ms. White was involved in early efforts in Virginia to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment and to enact equitable distribution divorce laws and was a proponent of Roe v. Wade. Her areas of interest as an attorney in private practice include domestic, women’s, and lesbian and gay rights issues. In1983, she was appointed as a substitute judge of the General District Court of the City of Richmond, becoming the first black woman to sit on the bench in the state of Virginia.
The multi-dimensional Bessida Cauthorne White always is a woman with a mission. Illustrative of her determination and drive is an adventure in 1977 in which she went searching for a Black doll for her then one-year-old daughter, Lauren Cauthorne Bladen-White, a monumental task since dolls then were largely white. As reported in the April 25-May 1, 1991 edition of the Richmond News Leader, “It took quite some looking to find one, but the experience set Ms. White on the road to collecting that has led to the founding of the Richmond Chapter of the National Black Memorabilia Collector’s Association and bringing the Black Memorabilia and Collections Show and Sale to the city this weekend.”
Indeed, over the years she served multiple organizations as both a founder and officer, including the Virginia Women’s Political Caucus, the Virginia Association of Women Attorneys, the Virginia Association of Black Women Attorneys, the Richmond Chapter of the National Black Feminist Organization, the Richmond Chapter of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, and Friends of African and African-American Art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
That Bessida Cauthorne White is a visionary is evident. She revels in creating, developing, and exploring. She is masterful in building coalitions to tackle new projects and to rejuvenate the old. She is innovative, motivational, and inspirational. She is an organization person who seeks organizational perfection. In 2004, she co-founded the Middle Peninsula African-American Historical and Genealogical Association and currently serves as its president. She is also a co-founder of the Greater Richmond, Virginia Chapter of the Afro-American Genealogical and Historical Society (AAHGS). Currently, she is chair of the board of the Rappahannock Industrial Academy Alumni Association and serves or has served on the boards of the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia, the Library of Virginia Foundation, and the Middlesex County Museum and Historical Society. She also is a member of the African American Advisory Work Group (AAAWG) of the Menokin Foundation and teaches genealogy classes for Rappahannock Community College. Ms. White is vice-chair of the Trustee Board at Angel Visit Baptist Church and is the church historian. Nationally, she has served on the boards of the National Women and the Law Association, the National Center on Women and Family Law, the National Association of Black Women Attorneys, and on various committees of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated.
As a consultant and event planner, Ms. White has planned programs involving from just a few persons to several thousand. Her specialty is culturally sensitive and multicultural programming with an emphasis on the culture of the African continent and the African diaspora. One of Ms. White’s passions is genealogy and family history. She is the family historian for ten of her families, manages DNA results for more than forty persons, and has chaired or been otherwise involved in the planning of numerous family reunions over the past thirty-plus years.
Bessida Cauthorne White is widely sought as a presenter and has conducted workshops on genealogy and family reunion planning for the National Family Reunion Institute at Temple University, AAHGS, and for other groups around the country. She is the editor of A Reunion of Recipes: The White Family Cookbook (1990), co-editor of Help Yourself! There’s a God’s Mighty Plenty: A Treasury of Recipes from the Cauthorne & Brooks Families (First Edition 2000; Second Edition 2017), and co-editor of Gather at the Welcome Table: The Angel Visit Baptist Church Sesquicentennial Cookbook (2016). Ms. White’s personal interests include black theatre and other performing arts, collecting black memorabilia, and sewing and crafts. She has been married to Philip N. Bladen since 1968, and they are the parents of one daughter, Lauren Cauthorne Bladen-White.
It is no wonder that Bessida Cauthorne White was recognized in 2020 by the State of Virginia as an Agent of Change. In honor of the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment of the United States Constitution granting women the right to vote, the Commonwealth of Virginia organized a statewide commemoration led by the Virginia Museum of History & Culture (VMHC). To mark the centennial, the Virginia Museum of History & Culture (VMHC) recreated a famous photograph of Virginia suffragists with a select group of present-day women for a new photo called “Today’s Agents of Change.” The Commemorative Booklet set forth:
White is an activist, genealogist, and retired attorney whose interests include Africana history and culture, and African American, women’s, and LGBTQ+ rights. She became the first black woman to serve on the bench in Virginia when appointed a substitute judge of the General District Court of the City of Richmond in 1983. White has served as a founder, officer, and board member for numerous legal, women’s rights, historical, fine arts, and genealogical organizations across the state and nation.
By Patricia Polson Satterfield