Celebrating Black History Month: Meet Lois Jean White, National PTA’s First African American President

PTA celebrates 125 years

Nearly a quarter of a century after the unification of National PTA and the National Congress of Colored Parents and Teachers, Lois Jean White made history by becoming National PTA’s first African American President.

Lois Jean White
Lois Jean White

Born in Nashville, Tenn., White was raised by her grandmother, who instilled in her the responsibility to always do the right thing. She fell in love with music at an early age and earned a bachelor’s degree in music from Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville. She went on to teach music at Mills College in Birmingham, Ala., where she met her husband, George White.

From 1967 to 1991, White was a flautist in the Oak Ridge Symphony Orchestra in Knoxville, Tenn. She balanced her music career with raising her family, deciding to join PTA to support her son and his school. Her dedication to advocating for children and charismatic leadership style saw her rise through the ranks, becoming the first African American elected President of Tennessee PTA in 1989.

Recognizing the importance of both volunteer work and the central role parents play in their children’s educational development, White was a champion for increasing family engagement in inner cities, and worked to grow PTA chapters in urban schools, which were underrepresented at the time. She was also an advocate for programs that encouraged inner city children to stay in school.

Shortly before becoming National PTA President, she participated in the Clinton Administration’s historic Presidents’ Summit for America’s Future. Retired General Colin Powell served as General Chairman of the summit, while Presidents’ Clinton and Bush served as honorary cochairs. The goals of the summit were to mobilize millions of citizens and thousands of organizations to participate in volunteer work to help provide greater opportunities in life to all of America’s children—something that White was well-equipped to discuss.

In her inauguration speech given at National PTA’s 101st national convention in Kansas City, White challenged her fellow members to carry PTA’s mission forward to those who needed their help the most.

“Reaching out to all children. That is what we’re supposed to be doing. It is one of our founding principles. But consider for a moment—are we really achieving our goal? Are we reaching the people who need us most? The ones who feel most disenfranchised by this society? Who not only aren’t being asked to the table, but may not even be aware they have something of value to contribute—that their voices matter and their opinions count? Those are the people we need to be concerned about.”

White’s presidency represented the living emblem of the PTA’s commitment to celebrating diversity and promoting inclusion. In honor of her service and dedication, the Lois Jean White Award is awarded each year by the Tennessee PTA to teachers who meet the leadership achievement requirements for three years in a row.

Learn more about Lois Jean White and her term as National PTA president.