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The Walter White Project

Jackson Stakeman, Randy Stakeman, Authors

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Walter White's Divorce and Remarriage

Walter White married Gladys Leah Powell in 1922.  She was a stenographer at the NAACP who had previously sung in a production of Deep River in Philadelphia. Mary White Ovington, a NAACP board member, said " Of all the girls she would have attracted me the least, but Mr. White thinks that being excitable himself he has incurred the proper contrast." His biographer writes "Gladys and Walter were not equal partners in this marriage; White appeared to want someone who would serve in a supporting role and help him penetrate the world of culture." Gladys made a comfortable home for Walter, bore him two children, and helped turn their 409 Edgecomb Avenue Harlem apartment into a salon to which people like George Gershwin dropped by at one time or another.

Walter White had first met Poppy Cannon, a white South African by birth, in 1928.  Their off and on again friendship and then affair lasted despite his long marriage to Gladys and Poppy”s three marriages and children by each of her husbands. Over the next twenty years they did not have the courage to do more than fleetingly enjoy each other’s company.  Perhaps he feared what public knowledge of an interracial relationship would do to his cause as well as his family.  A heart attack in 1947 jolted him into action. 

Although he had suffered his heart attack in January, 1947 and vowed to change his life, he had not done anything to change his domestic situation until February, 1949.  His actions were precipitated by his mistress Poppy Cannon. She told him that she had read an article linking his wife Gladys to another man.  Walter self-servingly took this news as an opportunity to confront his wife.  He wrote to Poppy, "I seized with hope on the story you heard... which caused me to believe there was someone else with whom she could be happy."

After confronting her Walter realized what he had done.  He wrote, "As long as I live I shall remember the stricken ashen look on her face this morning...In a flash she became an old woman.  Her eyes became frightfully tired and sad as though she were looking down an endless corridor."

Gladys was devastated by the accusation.  She wrote, "Now I realize your suspicions and difficult attitude all these years have been due to listening to lies about me. You certainly do not show much trust or faith in me..In all my married life there never has been anyone but you.  I have lived a very lonely life.  The children were all I've ever had with me when you were away."

He confessed his affair to Gladys then wrote Poppy, "Without you I cannot live. I don't want to. But to achieve that happiness by destroying another person who has given 27 years of loyalty and work and unselfishness without complaint would soon destroy it...why must the lives of others be altered and possibly mangled because there is no way for you and me to live apart?" Gladys agreed to the divorce.

Walter next confessed the affair to his friend Judge William Hastie who advised him to sever ties to the NAACP before getting his divorce. The sharpest criticism he received was from family.  His sisters Madeleine and Helen were shocked and dismayed.  Madeleine wrote,

"When you became the leader and spokesman for 10,000,000 Negroes you sacrificed any private life you might have had; the little people in the alleys and slums might not know who the President is or even who Abraham Lincoln was, but the all know and worship Walter White.  One of the main reasons for this worship and allegiance is the fact that you fell in love with and married a person of Gladys' complexion.  They believed anything you told them.  You were one of them.  You personified the doctrine of Race.  Can you afford to cast this aside?.... The NAACP is your life.  When you give that up you will be lost and you cannot continue if you do this."

Walter tried to resign from the NAACP citing health concerns not his divorce and remarriage plans.  They refused to accept his resignation and instead offered him a one year leave.  His leave began June 1, 1949. His divorce from Gladys became final on June 30 and he married Poppy cannon one week later.  The newlyweds immediately left for Europe on a radio program tour.

When word of his divorce and subsequent remarriage became public there was a split reaction among the NAACP board, the African American press and the black public. Carl Murphy an African American newspaper editor and NAACP board member for example wrote in a letter about the marriage to Poppy Cannon, " [White] has so weakened his usefulness that the Association will assume  a grave risk in attempting to keep him in office....The public believes Mr. Walter White as an outstanding leader of the country and as an executive of our Association, has done the wrong thing in marrying across racial lines. That bitterness is more pronounced among women than men." In his newspaper The Afro-American published in Baltimore he was more ambivalent:  Although White had done only what was intended by the creator and what makes a good marriage by marrying the woman he loved, he wrote that White had "tossed away" his thirty-five years in the struggle for equality because he "unwittingly placed in the hands of our most vocal opponents the very rebuttal they have attempted to use against our battle for freedom." The African American Louisiana Weekly defended White and wrote, "We don't get leaders like Walter White every day and it would make us as a group appear very ungrateful to throw him overboard for something that is his own personal and private business....Let us not forget that the NAACP is an interracial organization, so now its executive secretary and his wife are an interracial couple."

The real question was what would the NAACP do when White's leave was over in May, 1950.
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