How We Got The Story: Turn to the archives to learn about an early Arlington Heights figure

  • Chris Placek

    Chris Placek

  • Frank White, Arlington Heights' first Black resident who was president and charter member of the village's original volunteer fire department, will be honored with a display in village hall.

    Frank White, Arlington Heights' first Black resident who was president and charter member of the village's original volunteer fire department, will be honored with a display in village hall. Courtesy of Village of Arlington Heights

 
 
Posted2/1/2021 1:00 AM

I consider myself a student of history, and it's been said that journalists write the first draft of it.

So it's always fascinating to look through the Daily Herald's vast online database of full-page newspapers that date back to 1901.

 

When the subject of your story died in 1953, these archives are perhaps your best source.

I recently consulted the database, available for anyone to use at dailyherald.newspaperarchive.com, as I went about backgrounding Frank White, a 19th century volunteer firefighter, barber and political figure who was the first Black resident of Arlington Heights.

The day after Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Arlington Heights Village Manager Randy Recklaus mentioned at a village board meeting that he and his staff were in the process of assembling a display to honor White, who was a charter member and president of what started as an all-volunteer fire department in 1894.

With the project still in its infancy, Recklaus provided some basic details about who White was and his role in Arlington Heights history. We likely could have done a quick-hit story for the next day's paper, but Deputy City Editor Chuck Keeshan suggested we hold it to find out a little bit more about White, gather photos, try to find a family member for reaction and publish the story over the weekend.

So, I had a little more time to delve into the newspaper archives, where searches for "Frank White," "Arlington Heights" and "Barber" turned up some interesting clips from the turn-of-the-century: A listing of Arlington Heights village officials confirmed White's role in leadership of the fire department. Ads for White's Union Hotel Barber Shop promoted "Hair Cutting In The Latest Style." An adult haircut cost you a quarter. A shave, only a dime.

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Then I discovered a Sept. 28, 1961, Daily Herald story about White's life in Arlington Heights, penned by Dick Hoffmann. The reporter interviewed Al Volz, the one-time mayor, Republican state representative and committeeman, about his memories of White.

Dan Schoeneberg, administrator of the Arlington Heights Historical Museum, directed me to the museum's digital photo archive, where a number of black-and-white images from the fire department's early days depicted White alongside his fellow firefighters.

"He posed as they did: stiffly and self-consciously. His walrus mustache was full, drooping at the sides in the classic 'soup-strainer' style of the day," Hoffmann wrote in the 1961 piece.

My editor's last task -- to find White's family -- has so far remained elusive, as White and his wife had no children. But after his wife's death, he left Arlington Heights to live with a niece, so perhaps there are still some relatives out there.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

And maybe they'll see this column or our original Jan. 25 article and reach out to me. The story ran not only in the Daily Herald, but was picked up by the Associated Press. As a result, news of Frank White's honor in our Northwest suburb has gotten attention in news outlets coast-to-coast, including U.S. News & World Report, San Francisco Chronicle, St. Louis Post-Dispatch and The Washington Times.

The morning our story was published, I received an email from a Mount Prospect reader who recalls going with her father to get his hair cut by a man she remembers as "Barber White" in the early 1930s. She says she might have been as young as 2 or 3 at the time, but still has childhood memories of White, his Arlington Heights bungalow and well-kept lawn.

I thought White's story might be lost to the history books and our yellowed newspaper clippings. But now more people are starting to find out about him.

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