Joanne Lyles White of Louisiana: She Was a Tireless Champion for the Needy


Very often chalkboard champions are well-known for their achievements outside of the classroom, and this is certainly true about Joanne Lyles White of Alexandria, Louisiana.

Lillian Joanne Lyles White was born in Lecompte, Louisiana, on September 12, 1929, the eighth of twelve children born to Samuel and Marie Lyles. She and her siblings were raised on Compromise Plantation in Lloyd’s Bridge, Louisiana. Her parents were sharecroppers for many years, but eventually they leased and operated a farm of over 800 acres. Although the Lyles family operated one of the most productive cotton farms in the South, they never owned their own home or land. Joanne’s parents believed the most important inheritance they could leave their children was the opportunity for a college education.

As a youngster, Joanne was actively involved in the local 4-H club, serving as its president when she was in high school. In an era of Jim Crow laws and the Ku Klux Klan, many of her closest friends and playmates were the sons and daughters of African-American sharecroppers. At a very early age, Joanne became a champion for civil rights, a cause she publicly and vigorously supported throughout her entire life.

Joanne graduated from Lecompte High School at the age of sixteen. In 1950, she graduated from Louisiana State University with a bachelor’s degree in speech and social studies. After graduating from college, the young teacher accepted her first job at Bolton High School in Alexandria, Louisiana. She held this position from 1950 to 1963. She taught World History, American History, government, economics, and speech. She also served as the coach of Bolton High School’s speech and debate team. The indefatigable teacher was instrumental in creating a statewide forensics circuit; she founded and became the first president of the Louisiana High School Speech League and Tournament of Champions.

On April 30, 1951, Joanne married Paul Donald White, Sr. Together, they had six children.

All her life, Joanne was a tenacious and passionate advocate for the poverty-stricken, the dispossessed, single mothers, orphaned children, and the disabled. In 1989, she was one of the founding members of Hope House, a homeless shelter for women, mothers, and their children. The former teacher arranged for the donation of an expansive historic home on Bolton Avenue, and she raised both private and public funds to renovate and operate the facility. Since its creation, Hope House has provided thousands of women and children a new beginning. The dedicated teacher was especially honored when Hope House was selected by President George H.W. Bush to receive the 1,000 Points of Light Award.

After her second grandchild, Lamar Jr., was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, Joanne created Angel Care, an early childhood development center that provided networking opportunities and resources for families with mentally or physically challenged children. She was also the co-designer of the Aiken Optional School, an alternative school program to help students at risk of dropping out of school or who had already dropped out. In addition, she helped create the Kuumba Center, an inner-city educational and recreational institution.

In 1983, Joanne became one of the founding members the Shepherd Center, an ecumenical ministry comprised of 29 church congregations that worked together to assist the poor and the dispossessed.  As a part of her work with the Shepherd Center, Joanne created the Christmas Cheer for Children program, which provided computerized cooperative aid to over 4,000 children annually. She was also a founding member of the Rapides Parish Chapter of Habitat for Humanity, an executive committeewoman for the Job Training Partnership Act State Council, the chairperson of the State Committee on Illiteracy and Education, the chairperson of the Rapides Parish Workforce Investment Board, and a founding member of the Central Louisiana Food Bank. This tireless educator also worked with the governor’s office and the Department of Corrections to spearhead and chair a task force that investigated the treatment of incarcerated women and juveniles.

Among her many honors and awards, Joanne was named the recipient of the National Association of Social Worker’s Public Citizen of the Year Award, the Lions Club’s Outstanding Citizen Award, the Louisiana Methodist Church’s Children and Families Service Award, the Young Women’s Christian Association’s Outstanding Community Leader Award, the Zeta Phi Beta’s Outstanding Community Leadership Award, the Sojourner Truth Award, the Central Louisiana Professional Women’s Network’s Visionary Award, and Cenla Focus’s Cenla-ian of the Year. Joanne’s work was also commended by the Louisiana Department of Safety and Corrections, the Louisiana Department of Education, the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, the Rapides Parish Police Jury, and the Alexandria Human Relations Commission.

This very amazing chalkboard champion passed away in Alexandria, Louisiana, on March 9, 2011, at the age of 81.