Portrait from the 1929 West Virginia Blue Book.
Certainly one of the most unusually named public figures ever to grace the West Virginia political stage, Montezuma "M.Z." White indeed shares a name with that famed Mesoamerican emperor Montezuma (Moctezuma), the ruler of the Aztec empire during the early 16th century who met his end during the Spanish conquest of Mexico. A leading figure in the civic and political life of Mingo County, White served as mayor of Williamson (the Mingo County seat) and for four years was warden of the West Virginia State Penitentiary at Moundsville. A multi-term state senator, White's tenure in the Senate extended over fifteen years and his last two terms in that body saw him in the position of Senate president. White was also an unsuccessful aspirant for West Virginia Governor in 1932, losing out in that year's Republican primary.
A native of the Keystone State, Montezuma White was born in Greene County, Pennsylvania on September 6, 1872, the son of Stephen and Lucinda (Booher) White. White's formative years in Pennsylvania are unusual in the respect that he was self-educated, and was remarked by the 1913 work West Virginia and Its People as having "never attended public or private school in his life." Curiously, White's 1945 Beckley Times-Register obituary and his brief biography in the West Virginia Blue Book mention his receiving a "common school education" during his youth...all in all very confusing!
By age ten White had lost both his mother and father and in 1889 removed from Pennsylvania to Mingo County, West Virginia. Following his resettlement, White took work as a clerk in a "commissary store" operated by a lumber business in what would become the city of Williamson. In 1896 M.Z. White made his first run at public office, winning election as justice of the peace for the settlement of Thacker, and in the year following married to Dayton, Ohio native Emma Jeanette Spielman (1866-1921). The couple were wed for over twenty years and remained childless.
At the conclusion of his four years of service as justice of the peace White advanced to the post of jailer for Mingo County, in which he served for four years. This office was followed by his election to the first of three terms as mayor of the city of Williamson (which had incorporated in 1892), his exact dates of service being unknown at this time. In 1905 White branched out from politics into banking, helping to organize the Mingo County Bank, located in Williamson. He would subsequently be named as cashier of this bank, holding that post until 1911.
Portrait from the 1917 West Virginia Blue Book.
White continued his rise in Republican party circles in the state in the early 1900s, serving a six-year stint as president judge of the Mingo County Court, and in 1910 launched his candidacy for the West Virginia State Senate. In November 1910 M.Z. White won out at the polls and took his seat as senator from West Virginia's 6th senatorial district in January 1911. His term in that body saw him serve on the committees on Attaches, Banks, and Corporations, Claims and Grievances, Finance, Privileges and Elections, the Public Library, and lastly Mines and Mining, of which he served as chairman.
During his last full year in the Senate, White was appointed by Governor Henry D. Hatfield as Warden of the West Virginia State Penitentiary at Moundsville. White's appointment was confirmed by the Senate in the summer of 1914 and he officially entered into his duties on August 1st of that year. Despite having no previous experience in penology or in prison management White took to his new post with vigor, and within several months of assuming office had instituted a number of prison reforms, work that would see him profiled in a lengthy write-up in the Clarksburg Daily Telegraph in 1915, which noted:
"All punishment, except the waring of stripes, has been abolished, and the convicts disobeying the rules are no longer whipped as heretofore. The punishment of the men, by forcing them to stand up against a wall with their arms extended above their heads for certain lengths of time no longer exists either. Under Warden White the guards keep a very close watch on the men and very few breaches of rules, which are very strict in some instances, have been reported."Amongst other reforms adopted under White were the allowance of convicts to converse and mingle among themselves for a two hour period each evening in the corridors near their cells, and White was lauded for bringing about "changes for the betterment of life for those who had fallen." His tenure as warden concluded in 1918 and in that year returned to political life, assuming the chairmanship of the Republican State Executive Committee. After four years in that post, White again sought a seat in the state Senate and following his legislative win that November began what would become a twelve-year tenure in office, serving three consecutive terms in all (1923-1935).
Midway through the 1923-27 Senate term Montezuma White was elected by his fellow senators as Senate president in 1925, continuing to be elected to that post through the terms of 1927-29, 1929-31 and 1931-33. White stepped down as Senate president in 1933 following the Democrats gaining a majority in the legislature and was succeeded by A.G. Mathews. White's four terms as Senate president were referred to as "precedent-shattering" by the Beckley Tribune, being the longest serving senate president up to that time. White's time in office also saw him as a member of several prominent West Virginia government organizations, serving on the state capitol building commission, the Yorktown Sesquicentennial commission (1931), and the George Washington Bicentennial commission of 1932.
During his final Senate term, Montezuma White announced that he'd be seeking the Republican nomination for Governor of West Virginia in 1932. As one of several candidates vying for the nomination, White's main rival was Thomas Chasteene "T.C." Townsend (1877-1949), a Charleston-based attorney and state tax commissioner. As the primary race heated up, White hit the campaign trail, and in the spring of 1932, his candidacy was boomed in a truly remarkable fashion. As the Charleston Daily Mail related in its April 13 edition, a
"Motorcade of 52 automobiles, all decorated and with banners announcing the candidacy of Mont Z. White for the Republican nomination for governor, paraded through the street of Charleston early Sunday afternoon. The motorists came from Williamson, the home city of the candidate. They drove through Logan and Boone counties and returned by way of Huntington, leaving Charleston over the Midland trail. In the automobiles were 300 men and women, residents of Mingo and McDowell counties."
Portrait courtesy of Find-A-Grave.
Despite the overwhelming support of the citizens of Mingo and McDowell counties, White came up short in the vote count on primary election day, polling 70, 334 votes to T.C. Townsend's winning total of 147, 210. Townsend, in turn, would go on to lose the general election in November to Democrat Herman Guy Kump, who held the governorship from 1933-37.
Following his gubernatorial defeat, White served out the remainder of his Senate term and later returned to banking, holding the presidency of the First National Bank of Williamson until his death. Widowed in 1921, White remarried in 1922 to Pearl B. Criswell, who preceded him in death in 1930. He would marry for the third time in 1931 to Nell Clark Lynch (1884-1966), to whom he was wed until his death. White's final weeks of life were marred by ill health, and following his removal to a Williamson hospital his condition continued to fail, and on May 10, 1945, he died at age 72. He was later interred in the White family mausoleum at the Fairview Cemetery in Williamson.