A First Lady on the Front Lines

Eleanor Roosevelt’s Tour of the South Pacific – August & September 1943

By Paul M. Sparrow, Director

The summer of 1943 was a critical time for the Allies. The tide was just starting to turn as the Allied forces marked a series of hard won victories. The capture of Sicily was a stepping stone to the invasion of Italy. German forces surrendered in North Africa, and the brutal island hopping campaign in the South Pacific had brought American forces all the way to the Solomon Islands. The war in the Pacific stretched across thousands of miles, from the Aleutian Islands in Alaska all the way to Australia. The book “Guadalcanal Diary” by Richard Tregaskis was published in early 1943 and was an instant bestseller. It immortalized the heroic efforts of U.S. Marines to secure the island, and it had come to symbolize the struggle of ordinary boys in extraordinary circumstances.

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On August 17th, Eleanor Roosevelt began a month long journey to the South Pacific to visit our Allies in New Zealand and Australia, but more importantly to meet the soldiers and sailors stationed on remote islands cut off from their families and friends. Military commanders, especially Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, were unhappy with the First Ladies’ plans, and were deeply concerned that she would be a distraction from the war effort. They would soon change their minds.

In her first My Day column about the trip, delayed until August 28th for security reasons, she wrote this:

“I am about to start on a long trip which I hope will bring to many women a feeling that they have visited the places where I go, and that they know more about the lives their boys are leading. “ She knew how those mothers felt. All four of her sons were serving in uniform, and two had been stationed in the Pacific. Her son James had told her to eat with the enlisted men, not just the officers, if she wanted to know what was really happening. And she did.

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Eleanor was traveling as a representative of the Red Cross. She arrived on Christmas Island on the 19th, and toured the island’s hospitals and Red Cross Center.  Her itinerary was exhausting. From Christmas Island she traveled to Penhryn Island, Bora Bora, Aitutaki, Tutuliua Samoa, Fiji and New Caledonia in six days. She wrote this in her diary regarding her visit to Bora Bora.

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“I went through the hospital, saw the Red Cross man, the headquarters building, tents, and mess hall and day room and outdoor theatre in a colored troop area. There seems to be no trouble anywhere out here between the white and colored. They lie in beds in the same wards, go to the same movies and sit side by side and work side by side, but I don’t think I’ve seen them mess together, but their food is as good and everything just as clean in their quarters. Southern and Northern Negroes are in the same outfits.” Her efforts to end segregation in the military had not been successful, but she never stopped trying.

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She arrived on Noumea in New Caledonia on August 25th.  From there she would travel to New Zealand and Australia, then return to Noumea on Sept. 14th.

Admiral Halsey had complained bitterly about the stream of military leaders, congressman and “do-gooders” who insisted their duties included a personal inspection of the frontlines. They were a drain on resources, took up badly needed space on planes and in barracks and distracted Halsey and his staff from the duties of fighting a war. But protocol required that he meet the First Lady on her arrival, and so he did.  As she stepped off the plane wearing her Red Cross uniform the Admiral asked her what her plans were. Mrs. Roosevelt answered  “What do you think I should do?” In his war weary voice he grumbled, “Mrs. Roosevelt, I’ve been married for some thirty-odd years, if those years have taught me one lesson, it is never to try to make up a woman’s mind for her.”

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Eleanor then handed the Admiral a letter from the president asking him to let her visit Guadalcanal. In his autobiography he described their conversation: “Guadalcanal is no place for you, Ma’am” he answered firmly.  Mrs. Roosevelt said she would take her chances, but Admiral Halsey insisted that with the battle currently raging he needed every fighter plane he had and “If you fly to Guadalcanal, I’ll have to provide a fighter escort for you, and I haven’t got one to spare.”  Seeing how disappointed she was, the Admiral relented a little. “I will postpone my final decision until you return.”  Eleanor was particularly interested in visiting Guadalcanal because one of her close family friends, Joe Lash, was stationed there, and she had promised his wife she would try to see him.

Admiral Halsey’s initial misgivings were replaced with awe the next day. In less than 12 hours Eleanor inspected two Navy hospitals, traveled by boat to an officer’s rest house, returned and inspected an Army hospital, reviewed the 2nd Marine Raider Battalion (her son James had served with them) delivered a speech at a service club, attended a reception and was guest of honor at a dinner given by General Harmon. Even the crusty old sea salt Halsey was impressed, particularly with the amazing impact she had on the wounded in the hospitals. Astonished that the First Lady was talking to them, many came to life, smiled and appeared rejuvenated by her mere presence. She spoke to everyone.  Halsey recounted “I marveled at her hardihood, both physical and mental: she walked for miles, and saw patients who were grievously and gruesomely wounded. But I marveled the most at their expressions as she leaned over them. It was a sight I will never forget.”

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Eleanor left the next day and arrived in New Zealand on the 26th where she was greeted by cheering crowds. The Auckland Star described her as dedicated to “the quest for a better way of life, not only for her own people of the United States, but for all the peoples of the world.” She made a determined effort to highlight the work women were doing while the men were off fighting the war.  She visited Australia and was hailed as a beacon of hope. In Sydney she declared, “Perhaps here is the germ of an idea that in the postwar period women will be encouraged to participate in all activities of citizenship.”

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When she returned to New Caledonia on her way home, Admiral Halsey agreed to let her visit Guadalcanal, and he expressed his new found appreciation for her efforts. ” I told her that it was impossible for me to express my appreciation of what she had done, and was doing, for my men.  I was ashamed of my original surliness. She alone had accomplished more good than any other person … who had passed through my area.”

The Admiral’s initial concerns were well founded. The night before Mrs. Roosevelt arrived on Guadalcanal the Japanese bombed the island, and there was an air raid warning while she was there. They bombed it again the night after she left.

Her trip to Guadalcanal was rough, flying lights out at night to prevent detection by the Japanese in an unheated military transport.  She had been traveling non-stop for a month. She was exhausted and had lost thirty pounds. She was anxious about causing problems for the men stationed on Guadalcanal, and about seeing her good friend Sergeant Joseph Lash.

Eleanor’s friendship with Lash began five years earlier when Eleanor was finding ways to help the nation’s young people and he was a leader of the American Youth Congress. They had become political allies, friends, and something more. He was like a son to her, and she kept his photo with her at all times. When he was shipped overseas, she wrote him, “All that I have is yours always, my love, devotion and complete trust follow you.” Eleanor was also very close to Trude Pratt, Lash’s fiancée, and had helped her decorate their apartment.

The First Lady arrived in the early morning and met with General Twining. Eleanor asked the general if she could see Sergeant Lash, and soon Joe and Eleanor were reunited, upsetting military protocol with a warm embrace. Joseph and Eleanor met privately and discussed the war and its devastating impact on the soldiers.

Relieved to be with such a good friend after a month among strangers, Eleanor may have let him see the fatigue that she tried to hide from others. He wrote Trude telling her he had seen “a very tired Mrs. Roosevelt, agonized by the men she had seen in the hospitals, fiercely determined because of them to be relentless in working for a peace that this time will last.”

This photograph of Joe Lash taken during the war was still in Eleanor’s wallet 19 years later on the day she died.

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Eleanor visited the island chapel and the cemetery which made a deep impression on her. She wrote in her My Day column,

“On the island there is a cemetery and, as you look at the crosses row on row, you think of the women’s hearts buried here as well and are grateful for signs everywhere that show the boys are surrounded by affection. On their mess kits their buddies engrave inscriptions, such as “A swell pal, a good guy, rest in peace.”

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She also visited the hospitals once again, spending time with each and every patient. One reporter on the scene wrote, “Every time she grasps a new hand her face lights up with a resolute effort to feel sincere, not to leave this a mere empty gesture. She tries to feel a genuine impulse of friendship towards the person she is greeting.”

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“Hospitals and cemeteries are closely tied together in my head on this trip,” she wrote, “and I thought of them even when I talked to the boys who were well and strong and in training, ready to go wherever they had to go to win the war.”

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Mrs. Roosevelt with sentry, Pvt. Clarence D. Robertson, Tulsa, Oklahoma, looking over wrecked Zeroes at Guadalcanal

Eleanor’s visit to Guadalcanal made a deep impression on her. In her last column before returning to the United States she tried to find meaning in her experience, and in the experiences of the many people she had met. Her closing lines summarize her feelings, and her hopes for a better world.

“Long ago a man told me the big thing men got out of a war was the sense of shared comradeship and loyalty to each other. Perhaps that is what we must develop at home to build the world for which our men are dying.”


You can find interactive maps of Mrs. Roosevelt’s trip here and here.

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Summertime, and the Livin’ is easy…

By Paul M. Sparrow, Director
with Reagan Brown, intern

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80 years ago, on July 29th 1936, Franklin D. Roosevelt visited Campobello Island for the next to last time. It was a short visit, just two days, and it was only the second time he had returned since he came down with polio there in 1921. He had sailed up the coast of Maine with three of his sons, James, John and Franklin Jr. aboard a 56 foot schooner the Sewanna. This would be the last cruise FDR would take as the skipper of a small sailing ship, and as he cruised lazily off the coast, he was followed by the USS Hopkins, a Navy Destroyer, the Presidential Yacht the Potomac and the Liberty, a 114 foot sailboat filled with reporters and photographers.

Campobello Island in New Brunswick, Canada is one of those amazingly beautiful places where the wealthy elite of the 19th century went to escape the summer heat in an era before air-conditioning. Located just across the Lubec Narrows from the northernmost point on the coast of Maine, it is a sailor’s paradise. And Franklin Roosevelt navigated the riptides, narrow channels and rocky coastline of the Bay of Fundy, Passamaquoddy Bay and the Quoddy Narrows with a skill that impressed even the most jaded old Canadian salt.

James Roosevelt built a 15 room “cottage” there in 1885 and the family summered there almost every year. Franklin visited the island 31 times, and it was here that he first showed the symptoms of polio that would define the rest of his life. But more importantly it was here that he honed his skills as a sailor, and a skipper, and learned many of the leadership skills that would serve him so well in the White House.  Robert Cross in his brilliant book ‘Sailor in the White House” describes it this way:

“Roosevelt carried his sailor instincts unto the White House, the halls of Congress were fraught with hidden dangers and pitfalls, just as were the waters along New England’s treacherous coastline. He always was willing to alter his plans or make compromises in order to reach his goal, whether that goal was to reach landfall or to get a piece of important legislation through Congress, Franklin Roosevelt was a consummate sailor-politician. “

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Pokemon Go has come to the FDR Presidential Library and that’s a good thing.

By Paul M. Sparrow, Director

The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum is swarming with Pokemon Go characters. Visitors are wandering around staring at their phones, and catching them left and right.

Man holds smartphone near Library entrance

Facility Manager Corey Gower surveys the grounds for Pokemon possibilities.

I’ve caught four and I never played the game before and only spent ten minutes at it. We have several Poke Stops as well.

Pokemon Go screen shotWhat does this say about us? Is it the end of civilization as we know it? Probably not. And if Pokemon Go brings new people to the FDR Home and Museum than that’s a very good thing indeed. Having younger more technologically savvy visitors is critical if we are to remain relevant in the future.

Yes we all know Pokemon Go is the latest fad sweeping the country. Even the New York Times mentioned it (with a whiff of vox populi.)

It’s the best selling app right now, soon to overtake Twitter in daily users, and has driven the stock price of Nintendo through the roof. But what does it say about our culture when people are looking at their phones while visiting a museum? Well that will depend on what they do when they look up.

I welcome any Pokemon Go players who want to come to the FDR Library and Museum, and I hope they will take a moment to think about why those characters are here.

According to Blaire Moskowitz one of the geolocation sources that Nintendo uses to determine where characters appear is something called the Historical Marker database, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. The database includes the FDR Presidential Library, and eight other markers within two miles of the Library.

Informational plaque about the FDR Presidential Library & Museum

I hope players will think about what makes the location important enough to earn a marker.

One of the markers on the site reads:

“All that is within me cries to go back to my home by the Hudson River.’ – Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1944

It was only when passing through the gates at the end of this road that FDR felt truly at home. Roosevelt loved Springwood’s forests and fields. He found stability in the peaceful regularity of life here. As he neared the end of his life, Roosevelt often experienced his longing to return to this beautiful setting. “

Another marker is for FDR’s grave site. Labeled “The World Mourns” it reads:

“I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me.’ – President Harry S. Truman, Roosevelt’s successor.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s death on April 12, 1945, was a personal loss for many. Statesmen and ordinary citizens alike mourned his passing. The nation buried him here, in the Springwood rose garden on April 15, 1945 (photo shown).”

Informational plaque about the Roosevelt's Rose Garden, Home of FDR National Historic Site

Both Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt are buried here at the Home of Franklin Roosevelt National Park.  I hope the Pokemon players will look up from their phones and look around the beautiful garden and take a moment to contemplate where they are. They are in the presence of perhaps the most important couple in American history.

View of Rose Garden gravesite, Home of FDR National Historic Site

So while it is fun for people to use their phone to capture Clifairy, I hope they don’t miss the bigger picture of standing next to greatness.

The Director captured this cutie spotted right outside his office.

The Roosevelts are global icons for freedom and democracy. They embraced new technology in their day, and Franklin particularly loved playing games. When he was a teenager FDR loved to capture birds for his collection on exactly the same spot that this new generation is capturing Pikachu. So while some may see it as disrespectful to play a game while walking on the grounds of the Roosevelt home and museum, I think it is fine. As long as they realize that if it were not for the Roosevelts they might not have the freedom to play that game.

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An Act of Faith -The 75th Anniversary of the FDR Library and Museum

By Paul M. Sparrow, Director

June 30th, 1941 dawned a magnificent summer day in Hyde Park. A ferocious thunderstorm the day before had broken a torrid heat wave and left the air clear and fresh. The roses were in full bloom and FDR’s beloved birds sang in the treetops. A large crowd gathered on the lawn in front of the new museum, as family and friends mixed with reporters and the general public.

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President Roosevelt, wearing a bright white suit, was helped to his feet and grasped the podium. Sitting next to him was his wife Eleanor, and members of his family. The Library Trustees stood behind him as he spoke. Elected to an unprecedented third term, FDR was a man whose actions in the coming years would determine the fate of millions of people the world over. His belief in the strength of the nation and in the ability of its citizens to protect and preserve democracy into the future were eloquently expressed.

This latest addition to the archives of America is dedicated at a moment when government of the people by themselves is everywhere attacked.  It is therefore, proof – if proof is needed – that our confidence in the future of democracy has not been diminished in this nation and will not diminish.

As the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum celebrates its 75th Anniversary it is more important to look to the future than to the past. My predecessors did an outstanding job of renovating this beautiful old building, updating the exhibits and preparing this great institution for the next 75 years.  More than 13 million visitors have walked through the galleries, laughed at the giant Sphinx head, marveled at the ship models and been surprised by the painful steel leg braces FDR wore as he led America through the Great Depression and the Allies to victory in World War II.

Franklin D Roosevelt Presidential Library, Location: Hyde Park NY, Architect: EYP Architecture & Engineering

Franklin D Roosevelt Presidential Library, Location: Hyde Park NY, Architect: EYP
Architecture & Engineering

I walk by FDR’s private study every morning and try to imagine how FDR would lead the library today. He built his museum next to his home in Hyde Park because he loved the Hudson Valley. I think he would want to engage with his community, as he did throughout his life. He would want to use the latest technology, as he did so effectively with radio. And he would want to reach as many people as possible, helping them to learn from the past to make a better future.

So the FDR Library and Museum’s goal for the future is to enhance and expand our connection to the community. We also want people to share their memories of the Roosevelts with us. To do that we are launching a new effort called “Tell Us Your Roosevelt Story. http://www.fdrlibrary.org/myrooseveltstory.html

On July 2, during our Family Fun Festival, we will have a video crew interviewing people about their family’s connection to the Roosevelts. We will also be encouraging people to share their stores with us on our Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/fdrlibrary , or on Twitter using #myrooseveltstory, or email us at myrooseveltstory@nara.gov . Over time we hope to create a “People’s Archive” that preserves those memories for future generations. Franklin and Eleanor touched the lives of millions of Americans, so we know there are family heirlooms hidden away in old steamer trunks in the attic or in boxes in the basement. We encourage everyone to find their family’s story and share it with us.

visit-us-main-image httpwww.archives.govmuseumvisitAs a part of the National Archives, the FDR Library and Museum has a mission to strengthen our nation’s democracy by providing access to government records, and to use new technologies to engage the public in a conversation about the American experience.  The issues the Roosevelts championed will be as relevant tomorrow as they were 80 years ago: environmental protection, income equality, fair labor practices, a strong military, human rights, the United Nations and an informed electorate.

To fulfill our mission we will continue our digitization efforts and make as much material available online as possible. We need support to be able to do that. One example is our partnership with AT&T. Last year they funded our Master Speech File project putting the drafts of all of FDR’s speeches online.

laptop4This year AT&T is helping the FDR Library transfer old film of his Top-Ten speeches to state–of-the-art digital formats (4K Ultra HD) with enhanced imagery and audio. We will share these new resources with teachers and on social media so we can reach a new generation. We hope they use the lessons of the past to help them shape their future.  But with federal budgets tight and getting tighter we need corporate sponsors and individual donors to help us.

If Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt were alive today they would want this museum to reach out to people all over the world and engage them about the issues they care most about. In his dedication of the library FDR made his faith in the American people clear:

“It seems to me that the dedication of a library is in itself an act of faith. To bring together the records of the past and to house them in buildings where they will be preserved for the use of men and women in the future, a Nation must believe in three things. It must believe in the past. It must believe in the future. It must, above all, believe in the capacity of its own people so to learn from the past that they can gain in judgment in creating their own future.” June 30, 1941

You can learn more about the history of the FDR Library and Museum here: https://fdrlibrary.org/library-history

I believe strongly that the past must never govern the future, I also believe that we must have the past in mind to help us shape the future.
-Eleanor Roosevelt Sept. 3, 1946 Address to the NY Democratic State Convention

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The Roosevelts and the House of Orange

By Paul Sparrow, Library Director

The relationship between the Roosevelt family and the Dutch royal family, known as the House of Orange, is both charming and historically significant. New York and the Hudson River Valley were both originally settled by Dutch pioneers. And the Netherlands was the first country to recognize the United States. In the mid-20th century the diplomatic connections between the two countries became personal. The roots of that special bond can be traced to a farming community on the Dutch coast.

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Anna Eleanor Roosevelt and Tony Roosevelt

On April 20, 2016 a Roosevelt Information Center opened in the tiny village of Oud-Vossemeer in the province of Zeeland in the Netherlands. Princess Beatrix presided over the activities and cut the ribbon to mark the official opening. Anna Eleanor Roosevelt and her cousin Tony Roosevelt, the grandchildren of FDR, also attended the event, giving a personal family touch to the day.

There is no question that the Roosevelts descended from Claes Martensen van Rosenvelt, a Dutch farmer who arrived in New Amsterdam around 1650 (later renamed New York.) Where Claes Martensen came from is not known, although many have tried to discover his ancestral home.

Inside the new visitor center is an old 16th century map of the area around Oud Vosssemeer It shows a parcel of land between Oud-Vossemeer and Poortvliet called “’t Rosevelt.” This may be the original home site of the family.

The Roosevelts themselves seem to have accepted this version of history. Oud-Vossemeer was visited by a nephew of President Theodore Roosevelt during his quest for information about the family history. Eleanor Roosevelt visited the village in 1950. Film of her visit is available for viewing at the Information Center on iPads that contain a wide variety of images and information about the connections between the Roosevelts and Zeeland.

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Princess Beatrix, Tony Roosevelt, Anna Roosevelt, and the chair of the board of directors of the Ambachtsheerlijkheid Mr. Heyse

The strong personal ties between the Dutch royal family and the Roosevelts started during the darkest days of World War II. As the German army swept across Europe in 1939, FDR sent a personal note to Queen Wilhelmina offering sanctuary to her and her family.

“I am thinking much of you and the House of Orange in these critical days, and it occurs to me that in the event of the invasion of Holland you may care to have the Crown Princess and the children come to the United States temporarily to be completely safe against airplane raids. It would give Mrs. Roosevelt and me very great happiness to care for them over here as if they were members of our own family and they could come to us either in Washington or at our country place at Hyde Park.”

In May 1940 the German army invaded the Netherlands. Its soldiers fought bravely, but were no match for the Nazi war machine. On May 17th, during the Battle of Zeeland, the city of Middelburg was subjected to a ferocious attack by Germany bombers. More than 600 buildings were destroyed. Queen Wilhelmina escaped to London and set up the Dutch government in exile.

The Queen’s daughter Princess Juliana and her family came to North America, splitting their time between Canada and the United States. Princess Juliana and her children visited Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and they became close friends. FDR especially adored her daughters, Beatrix, (known as Trixie) Irene, and Margriet.

In the summer of 1942, Princess Julianna moved to Lee, Massachusetts where she and her young children lived for several months. The estate was close enough for the Roosevelts to drive there from Hyde Park for lunch or tea. The Royals also regularly visited Hyde Park.

Picnic for Princess Juliana of the Netherlands at Val-kill, Hyde Park, New York, October 9, 1943. L-R: Secret Service, Secret Service, Princess Irene, Princess Beatrix, Princess Juliana, Mrs. J.R. Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt in background with unidentified man, FDR, children's nurse, Grace Tully, Ethel Roosevelt (Mrs. FDR, Jr.). Photo by Margaret Suckley.

Picnic for Princess Juliana of the Netherlands at Val-kill, Hyde Park, New York, October 9, 1943. L-R: Secret Service, Secret Service, Princess Irene, Princess Beatrix, Princess Juliana, Mrs. J.R. Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt in background with unidentified man, FDR, children’s nurse, Grace Tully, Ethel Roosevelt (Mrs. FDR, Jr.). Photo by Margaret Suckley.

During one visit the young princesses were having trouble swimming in the pool at Val-Kill. Always helpful, FDR gave Trixie and Irene a set of water-wings to help them swim.

Trixie and Irene sent a thank-you letter to the President for his gift, for the Roosevelts’ hospitality, and their love for FDR’s dog, Fala. This letter is on display at the Roosevelt Information Center in Oud-Vossemeer.

During a radio broadcast in Nov. 1941, Eleanor described a recent visit with the royal family.

“We had a happy time with the Princess and her tiny daughters, Princess Beatrix and Princess

Irene… I became very fond of them…I’m particularly impressed with Princess Juliana’s simplicity

and with the personal care and attention she pays to them. I think we Americans sometimes feel that a mother who is at the same time a Crown Princess does not have the time to devote to her children that an average American mother gives. In this case this is not so.”

In January 1944 Eleanor and Princess Juliana attended a dinner in Washington, D.C. with the Royal Family of Norway. She wrote in her column that “It is always a great pleasure for me to be with this young princess who is so deeply interested in the good of her country.”

Eleanor Roosevelt and the Royal Family of Norway with Princess Juliana of the Netherlands and Thomas Watson, January 10, 1944

Eleanor Roosevelt and the Royal Family of Norway with Princess Juliana of the Netherlands and Thomas Watson, January 10, 1944

Princess Juliana and her family returned to the Netherlands at the end of the war and she became Queen Juliana in 1948. Eleanor visited her in 1948 and 1950 and they often exchanged letters and telegrams commenting on the events of the world. Princess Beatrix also developed a deep friendship with Eleanor, and visited her at Val-Kill. She was an overnight guest there in September 1959, the day before Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev came to visit.

In her autobiography Eleanor wrote “I have a very special feeling about Queen Juliana because… she came a number of times to stay with us at Hyde Park with her husband and children. Franklin was godfather to their third daughter…. As queen, Juliana has worked vigorously to help develop understanding among Europeans…. The pages of history will record that she was a woman who loved her fellow human beings.”

After reigning for 32 years, Queen Juliana stepped down and Beatrix became the Queen in April 1980. Princess Juliana was awarded the first International Four Freedoms Award in 1982 by the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute. The Institute also founded the Roosevelt Study Center in Middelburg, Zeeland.

Queen Beatrix abdicated in 2013 and her son Willem-Alexander is now the King. Her attendance at the opening of the Roosevelt Information Center reflects her deep affection for Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and all that they stood for.

Anna Roosevelt, Princess Beatrix, Oud-Vossemeer Mayor Mrs. Van der Velde

Anna Roosevelt, Princess Beatrix, Oud-Vossemeer Mayor Mrs. Van der Velde

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The Four Freedom Awards

Paul Sparrow, FDR Library Director

addressOn January 6, 1941 President Franklin Roosevelt delivered his State of the Union address. He had just been elected to an unprecedented third term in office, and he decided to use this speech to articulate his vision for the future in the face of a global war between totalitarianism and democracy. He outlined four freedoms that were critical to a peaceful world: Freedom of Speech and Expression, Freedom of Religion, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear.

As a part of the FDR Centennial Celebration, on the 100th anniversary of his birth, January 30, 1982, the International Four Freedom Awards were created to recognize and honor those individuals who personified the freedoms that Pres. Roosevelt articulated so eloquently.

The awards are bestowed by the Roosevelt Institute in New York, and the Roosevelt Foundation in Middelburg, Netherlands. The awards ceremony alternates between the two countries. This year the awards recognize a range of people who reflect the complex world we live in today.

Angela_Merkel_2015_(cropped)Dr. Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, has been selected to receive the International Four Freedoms Award in 2016. She was chosen because of her remarkable leadership across a range of crisis including the financial collapse, the Russian takeover of Crimea and the Ukrainian peace talks, and the great immigrant migration currently roiling Europe. It is her moral leadership in the face of the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim movement that most reflects the work of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Chancellor Merkel is committed to protecting those fleeing the brutal wars in the Middle East and Africa, despite fierce political opposition.

Previous winners of the Four Freedoms Award include Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter, General Kofi Annan and Harry Truman.

256_300_3_91_8_img_7686_bea_ppThe Freedom of Speech Award is being given to Mazen Darwish, the director of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, and the founder of syriaview.net, he had been an outspoken champion for independent reporting in the most dangerous country in the world for journalists. His efforts to promote human rights, and to report on torture, arbitrary arrests and human rights violations by the Syrian regime shows true courage.

The award for Freedom of Religion is being presented to three members of the clergy from the Central African Republic. Dieudonné Nzapalainga, Omar Kobine Layama and Nicolas Guérékoyame-Gbangou have worked tireless in the cause of peace and reconciliation in a country that has been wracked with civil war and violence. They champion an an interfaith dialogue that brings together those who might otherwise find themselves on the opposite of the conflict. They have created an organization, the Interfaith Peace Platform, that brings together Muslims, Catholics and Protestants in a quest for peace.

Dieudonné_Nzapalainga,_Nicolas_Guérékoyame_Gbangou_et_Omar_Kobine_LayamaDr. Denis Mukwege was selected to receive the Freedom from Want Award for his efforts to help survivors of the horrific sexual violence taking place in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He was the founder of Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, a center for the treatment of both the physical and psychological wounds of weaponized rape. It also provides legal and counseling services to help the victims reenter a society that shuns victims of abuse. Dr. Mukwege also fights to bring those responsible for these crimes to justice, despite the extreme danger those efforts put him in personally.

Denis_Mukwege_par_Claude_Truong-Ngoc_novembre_2014In a world filled with angst about terrorism, climate change and poverty, this year’s Freedom from Fear Award will go to an organization rather than an individual. Human Rights Watch truly fights for the ideals expressed by Eleanor Roosevelt in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Their efforts around the globe document abuses and bring those atrocities to the attention of the world. They shine a bright spotlight on human rights violations, gender discrimination, torture, corruption and the grossly immoral use of children as soldiers and sexual slaves.

Human Rights WatchThis year’s winners stand on the shoulders of a generation of great leaders who have been honored with the Four Freedom Awards. They include Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Malala Yousafzai, Daw Aung Sam Suu Kyi, Bill Moyers, Mike Wallace, Rep. John Lewis and the first winner in 1982, Princess Juliana of the Netherlands. The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum is proud to be associated with this important Award that promotes the legacy of FDR’s vision for a peaceful world.

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The Roosevelts’ Art: Personal Stories

By Paul Sparrow, Director

Art is the window to man’s soul. Without it, he would never be able to see beyond his immediate world; nor could the world see the man within. – Lady Bird Johnson

“The Roosevelts’ Art: Personal Stories” is a special exhibit running from April 1 until April 30th in the William vanden Heuvel Gallery at the FDR Library. It will feature 22 rarely seen works from the Roosevelt’s personal collection and invite visitors to examine their lives through the lens of art.

The colorful scene of a bridge over a Venetian canal by Charles Stuart Forbes is not remarkable. Certainly not a masterpiece. But when you learn that it was a wedding gift from the artist, and that Franklin and Eleanor visited Venice on their honeymoon it becomes more interesting. When you see the photograph that Franklin took of Eleanor on the last day of their honeymoon that echoes the painting you ask yourself, what does that mean?

 

After FDR died, Eleanor took the painting from Springwood, the family home that was soon to be a National Park, for what she described as “sentimental reasons.” It hung in the living room of her apartment in New York for the rest of her life. The artist, Charles Forbes was a cousin of Franklin’s mother Sara. They had a total of five of his works, all showing bridges or water scenes. So what does that watercolor tell us about the Roosevelts? The beauty of art is that everyone can draw their own meaning, but it certainly provides evidence of an enduring affection between Eleanor and Franklin that survived the many challenges to their relationship.

Some of the pieces in the exhibit are deeply personal. A delicate painting of Eleanor by Otto Schmidt, commissioned by her son Elliott and given to FDR as a birthday present in 1933, hung in the Oval Study until FDR’s death in 1945. When Eleanor first saw it she started crying, demurring that “she wasn’t that pretty.” This was Franklin Roosevelt’s favorite portrait of her.

Use Restriction: Restricted – Possibly. Otto Schmidt, 1933.

Use Restriction: Restricted – Possibly. Otto Schmidt, 1933.

FDR’s lifelong interest in maritime art is well known. “Surrender of the German Fleet” is a work by Bernard Finegan Gribble that FDR commissioned while he was Assistant Secretary of the Navy in 1919. A large version of it originally hung in his office at the Navy Department and is now on display at the Naval Academy. He had a smaller version made for his personal collection, and in 1933 it was prominently displayed in the family residence at the White House. It is clearly visible in a portrait of the Roosevelt family painted in 1934 by John C. Johansen.

There are very few paintings that show multiple members of the Roosevelt family. It took months to schedule a time for the whole family to come together to sit for the artist. When the day finally arrived, only two of the five children were able to make it.

FDR, Eleanor, their daughter Anna and son Elliott are pictured in the Oval Study at the White House.

This painting was exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery in 1936. The other painting visible on the wall now hangs in FDR’s office at the Library.

One of Franklin Roosevelt’s abiding passions was the Hudson River Valley, and he collected books, drawings, prints and paintings of his beloved Dutchess County throughout his life.

Use Restriction: Restricted – Possibly. Mitchell Jamieson, 1940.

Use Restriction: Restricted – Possibly. Mitchell Jamieson, 1940.

The painting “View of Top Cottage” by Mitchell Jamieson captures a quiet idyll in the woods. Unseen is its role as an escape from the stresses of global war. It is just one of 27 watercolors of landscapes in and around Hyde Park commissioned for FDR by Treasury Secretary, and close friend, Henry Morgenthau. A simple watercolor of a small stone cottage gains in significance when it is revealed that FDR designed the building himself and that it was one of the first fully wheelchair accessible homes ever built. It becomes even more interesting when you learn he entertained the King and Queen of England on the front porch, and planned to live there when he left office.

Two paintings reflect the remarkable friendship between Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt. The two first met as world leaders in August of 1940 at a secret meeting held aboard warships in the North Atlantic. The result was one of the most seminal documents of the 20th Century, the Atlantic Charter. A photographer captured an image of the two men sitting on the deck of the HMS Prince of Wales.

Use Restriction: Restricted – Possibly. Raymond Perry Rodgers Neilson, 1942.

Use Restriction: Restricted – Possibly. Raymond Perry Rodgers Neilson, 1942.

Thomas Watson, the CEO of IBM and a friend and powerful supporter of the President, commissioned Raymond Rogers Neilson to create an oil painting to immortalize what he described as “the most important world event that has ever taken place between the leaders of two great nations.” Watson gave it to the President in 1942, and later sent a copy to Churchill.

In 1943 they met again in Morocco for a wartime strategy meeting at a critical turning point in the war. After completing the Casablanca Conference the two drove across the desert to Marrakesh, and passed by the gate to the famous Bab El Khemis market. The French impressionist painter Marius Hubert-Robert painted the gate and gave it to FDR as a token of his admiration and respect.

Use Restriction: Restricted – Possibly. Marius Hubert-Robert, 1943.

Use Restriction: Restricted – Possibly. Marius Hubert-Robert, 1943.

The short excursion to Marrakesh had special meaning for both men. It represented a moment of escape, and possibly a view to a more peaceful future. The two of them enjoyed the glory of a stunning sunset from the tower at the Majorelle Gardens, captured in a famous photograph.

51-115 121What do these paintings reveal about Franklin Roosevelt? They are tokens of the deep bonds that Franklin forged with his closest friends. Bonds that in this case helped the Allies save the world from Fascism.

“The Roosevelts’ Art: Personal Stories” asks a simple question: Can art truly tell us something about a person we already know so much about? One of the missions of the National Archives and the Presidential Libraries is to “Make Access Happen.”

The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Museum and Library holds more than 10,000 pieces of art in its collection, covering a wide range of time periods and styles. Most of it is kept in secure storerooms, rarely if ever exhibited for the public to see. The pieces personally collected by Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt are indeed windows into their lives. “The Roosevelts’ Art: Personal Stories” strives to provide a new perspective on perhaps the most important political couple in American history. The pieces were selected not for their value, but for the stories they tell.

This exhibit offers a rare and brief opportunity to explore the personal collection of the Roosevelts and get a glimpse into their complex and remarkable lives. Three new pieces by their great-granddaughter Laura Roosevelt will also be on display.

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The President on Broadway: FDR, George M. Cohan, and “I’d Rather Be Right”

by William A. Harris, FDR Library Deputy Director

Billy Rose Theater Collection, Photograph File, New York Public Library

Billy Rose Theater Collection, Photograph File, New York Public Library

Lambasting the President through low comedy or high satire shocks no one these days, especially during an election year. With the exception of editorial cartoons, before the 1960s, that wasn’t always the case. Motion pictures and the legitimate theater traditionally offered reverent presentations of the Presidents. FDR received this treatment in the Tony-award winning play, Sunrise at Campobello, which premiered thirteen years after his death. Incumbent Presidents were rarely portrayed at all.

Like running for a third or fourth term, FDR proves the exception. One almost forgotten show, I’d Rather Be Right, takes on Roosevelt, the incumbent President, using comedy and satire. The 1937 production also has the distinction of being the first Broadway musical, perhaps the first Broadway show ever, to feature the sitting President as the main character. As for reverence, forget about it. Almost everything was up for grabs, a daring approach at the time.

By any measure, 1937 was a tough one for FDR, from the so-called “Roosevelt recession” to accusations of court-packing. Commentators wondered if the President had lost his broad-based support and deft political touch. The climate was ripe for taking swipes on stage, and the President’s larger-than-life personality and often controversial policies offered plenty of material. Why let the editorial pages have all the fun, producer Sam Harris figured, when FDR enjoyed the limelight.

Writers Moss Hart and Pulitzer Prize winner George S. Kaufman eagerly embraced the project, and Harris teamed them with successful songwriters Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart whose numbers had graced several smash hits. Broadway buzzed as critics and theatre goers alike braced for knives honed to cut apart Roosevelt and the New Deal. The show was sure to be entertaining, but when legendary song-and-dance-man George M. Cohan signed on to play FDR, it promised to be the hit of the season.

Cohan, Broadway Program

Music Division, The New York Public Library. “The Yankee Doodle boy” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1904.

The epitome of scrappy, American patriotism, Cohan had endeared himself to the public with songs such as A Grand Old Flag and Give My Regards to Broadway over a forty-year career. It was a brilliant piece of casting, somewhat blunting criticism about the musical’s controversial content and undoubtedly ensuring a healthy box office. Neither Cohan, nor Kaufman were Roosevelt fans. Kaufman, however, appreciated the satirical possibilities, and all politics aside, Cohan recognized a star turn.

Known among the theater set for his arrogance as much as his patriotism, Cohan proved difficult from the start. Upon first hearing the score at his Fifth Avenue apartment, he walked out. He considered Rodgers and Hart “upstarts” and their material subpar. Rodgers remembered the experience as “at all times disagreeable.” But with the aggravations came financial rewards. Cohan’s name on the marquee resulted in $247,000 in advance ticket sales, second only to the blockbuster Show Boat at the time.

George M. Cohan as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Photo by Vandamm Studio, © New York Public Library

George M. Cohan as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Photo by Vandamm Studio, © New York Public Library

The show went into previews before a packed house at the Colonial Theater in Boston on October 11, 1937. The reviews were positive, if not enthusiastic. “The spoofing is more good natured than biting,” noted a critic. The plot is as flimsy as a tar paper shack. A young couple can’t marry. Why? The economy, of course. But along comes a dapper FDR. He’s convivial and oh so helpful, enlisting his cabinet to balance the budget for the sake of young love. That’s Presidential leadership!

George M. Cohan with the Supreme Court, Photo by Vandamm Studio, © New York Public Library

George M. Cohan with the Supreme Court, Photo by Vandamm Studio, © New York Public Library

The fantasy presents a parade of the day’s leading political personalities. Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau sings a solo about bonds and Supreme Court justices pop out of bushes to warn the President against new laws. Postmaster General James Farley suggests selling off Baltimore. Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins proposes taxing post offices. In the end, the budget can’t be balanced, but FDR generously offers to stay in office for ten more years to get the job done! A third term is essential.

Few escape the ribbing, even the President’s mother, whose butler is the 1936 Republican nominee Alf Landon. Eleanor Roosevelt, though, is noticeably absent. Unsurprisingly, FDR’s paralysis also goes unmentioned. In fact, Cohan’s showstopper, Off the Record, has the President cavorting before the audience in a patriotic fervor. In the end, everything turns out to be a dream, and Cohan’s FDR gives an inspirational closing speech about the future of America—not exactly a cutting edge conclusion.

The President kept his counsel about the show. A man of good humor and high self-regard, he probably didn’t mind the attention. When the production previewed in Baltimore in late October, the White House requested six seats for “Mrs. Roosevelt’s secretary and Col. E. W. Starling of the Secret Service.” A small item on the front page of The Washington Post notes Starling’s attendance, as well as that of Presidential advisor Bernard Baruch. Presumably they reported back to the White House.

Scant correspondence about the hoopla exists in Roosevelt’s papers. A couple of letters by loyal supporters document concern about the show’s impact on American institutions. The National Democratic Council drafted a resolution denouncing the production as a “burlesque which directly reflects on the prestige of these United States.” Presidential secretary Marvin McIntyre directed a staffer to telephone the council’s vice president. The message—leave us out of this.

The show finally opened on Broadway at the Alvin Theatre on November 2, 1937. As for the hype, writing for The New York Times, critic Brooks Atkinson observed that “I’d Rather Be Right has arrived in town. The town is still intact.” He reserved praise for Cohan. “The sensational moment…is not when the President tries to balance the budget,” Atkinson explains, “but when George M. Cohan pulls his top hat tight on his head, breaks into a skittish, waggling dance and whirls around the stage.”

A smash hit, I’d Rather Be Right ran for 290 performances. The success probably had as much to do with Cohan as the subject matter. It’s doubtful the President cared. When presenting Cohan with a Congressionally-authorized gold medal in 1940, FDR referred to him as his “double.” A news photo shows the star looking down on the President, who, all smiles, beams back confidently. Cohan may have been Mr. Broadway, a good mimic and outstanding showman, but there’s no mistaking who’s President.

I’d Rather Be Right is a relic of another era, too dated for a full-fledged revival today, many of its punchlines lost on modern audiences. In 1937, the very idea of this musical raised eyebrows. After its premier, they were quickly lowered. Even in satire, the President is a humorous, engaging figure. With his programs and policies so groundbreaking and far-reaching, his image and voice so pervasive and familiar, almost everyone could appreciate the jokes—most likely even Roosevelt.

For those familiar with FDR, his Administration, and the 1930s, the humor holds up fairly well, though it’s pretty tame stuff. The Wagner Act as a vaudeville troop and high taxes replaced by a national pick pocket aren’t bad. They were certainly good enough for record profits. As for the President himself, with his grand and engaging manner, his confidence and ebullience, he could take a joke without question and laugh all the way to a third term.

George M. Cohan as FDR with the full ensemble, Photo by Vandamm Studio, © New York Public Library.

A few “FDR” lyrics from the score:

On his beloved Hudson Valley hometown—

“When I go up to Hyde Park/
It’s not just to ride there/
It’s not that I love Hyde Park/
But I love to park and hide there.”

On Wall Street—

“I’m really quite the hero/
I only have to say, ‘My friends…’/
And stocks go down to zero.”

On his future—

“If I’m not re-elected/
I’ll never fear for hunger/
I’ll never fear for thirst/
I’ve one son with du Pont/
And another one with Hearst.”

On a third term—

“When I was courting Eleanor/
I told her Uncle Teddy/
I wouldn’t run for President/
Unless the job was steady.”

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FDR and the Supreme Court: A Lasting Legacy

By Paul M. Sparrow, Director

The current debate about the appointment of a Supreme Court Justice during a presidential campaign is a political distraction because the constitution is clear on this. But the core issue about the importance of the President’s power to select Justices is vitally important. The consequences of the selection can be tectonic, and are rarely predictable.

Supreme Court, 1939-40

Supreme Court, 1939-40

Aside from George Washington, no President selected more men to sit on the Supreme Court than Franklin Roosevelt. And back then they were all white men. During his twelve years in office he appointed eight Justices. Four of whom qualify as some of the most influential jurists to ever wear the black robes: Hugo Black, Felix Frankfurter, William O. Douglas, and Robert H. Jackson.

In his book “Scorpion: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR’s Great Supreme Court Justices” Noah Feldman describes them this way:

“Four more different men could hardly be imagined. Yet they had certain things in common. Each was a self-made man who came from humble beginnings on the edge of poverty. Each had driving ambition and a will to succeed. Each was, in his own way, a genius. “

Although they were all appointed by FDR, they did not always agree, and in fact their battles became legend. Feldman describes it this way:

“They began as close allies and friends…Within months, their alliance had fragmented. Friends became enemies. In competition and sometimes outright warfare, the men struggled with one another to define the Constitution and, through it, the idea of America.”

IMG_7536

William O. Douglas, Maurice Constant Collection

Two of them were among the longest serving justices. Hugo Black (#5) and William Douglas (#1) served on the court for 34 and 36 years respectively. Douglas still holds the record for the most opinions written, and for the most wives (four).

He was also essentially the first environmentalist on the court, and was on the board of the Sierra Club. Known as ‘Wild Bill” he was uncompromising and unpredictable. A staunch defender of the Bill of Rights he was anti-government surveillance and anti-Vietnam War. When Gerald Ford was a congressman he tried to have him impeached, and then got to name his replacement in 1975, John Paul Stevens.

 

Hugo Black, Maurice Constant Collection

Hugo Black, Maurice Constant Collection

Hugo Black was FDR’s first appointment and generated the most controversy. A Senator from Alabama, Black was a populist politician with little judicial experience. FDR had been battling the Supreme Court over his New Deal legislation, and the conservative Southern Justices had thwarted him time and again. But FDR perceived Black as on his team, and as a sitting Senator would be easily confirmed. He announced Black’s nomination on August 12, 1937, and he was confirmed August 17 – just five days later. No background investigation was done by the White House.

After he was approved by the Senate, it was revealed that he had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan. The controversy was intense and emotional. There were calls for him to be impeached. FDR wanted Black to apologize and renounce the Klan, although Black later said that FDR was aware of his Klan association.

Under intense pressure, Black gave a masterful radio speech in which he claimed that his record in the Senate showed he was not a racist. He admitted to having been a member of the Klan, but that he had resigned before coming to Washington. He survived the storm, but the controversy followed him throughout his career.

In one of the great examples of how serving on the Supreme Court can reveal a person’s true character, Black’s body of opinions and voting record reveal him to have been an “unbending advocate of judicially mandated racial equality.” (Feldman, pg 143) Although he supported the Japanese Internment, he left a lasting legacy as a strong supporter of the First Amendment and Civil Rights.

Felix Frankfurter, Maurice Constant Collection

Felix Frankfurter, Maurice Constant Collection

Felix Frankfurter’s nomination was also highly controversial, and generated such opposition that it was the first time a nominee was forced to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee, a process that is now required.

A strong supporter of judicial restraint, Frankfurter was enormously influential on the court. Although in his early career he was a radical and helped found the ACLU, during his term on the court he became the leader of the conservative faction, and engaged in sharp conflicts with both Black and Douglas. He described their work as “shoddy” and “demagogic.”

Robert Jackson was the Solicitor General and the Attorney General before becoming an Associate Justice on the Supreme Court. He is the only person to have held all three positions. His description of the Supreme Court remains a landmark of legal observation:

“We are not final because we are infallible, but we are infallible only because we are final”

Robert Jackson, Maurice Constant Collection

Robert Jackson, Maurice Constant Collection

While he was Attorney General, Jackson helped FDR draft the language for the Destroyers for Bases program that allowed the US to provide war material to Great Britain despite a ban on arm sales dictated by the Neutrality Act. From his first year on the court, Jackson and Hugo Black clashed, both personally and professionally. Jackson was one of the few Justices to disagree with the Japanese Internment and his dissent to Black’s opinion was scathing.

But here is an attempt to make an otherwise innocent act a crime merely because this prisoner is the son of parents as to whom he had no choice, and belongs to a race from which there is no way to resign. If Congress in peace-time legislation should enact such a criminal law, I should suppose this Court would refuse to enforce it.

These four men shaped American society in ways we are still living with today. Although they were all appointed by a liberal, progressive president, they all charted their own paths and helped make legal history. For any president, the appointment of a person to the Supreme Court is an enormous responsibility, and it is almost impossible to predict how that person will respond once they don the black robes and sit in judgement from the highest bench in the land. It’s the President’s job to nominate, the Senate’s job to confirm, and the Justice’s job to rule whether laws are constitutional. Period.

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Eleanor Roosevelt’s Battle to End Lynching

by Paul M. Sparrow, Director

As we celebrate Black History Month, it is a good time to explore one of Eleanor Roosevelt’s most outspoken campaigns, and one of her greatest disappointments. Throughout American history issues of race and civil rights have challenged our most precious core principal – that all people are created equal. During the first half of the 20th century, racial segregation and discrimination were the law in many states. The notorious Jim Crow laws in the South prevented African Americans from getting a decent education, from owning businesses and even from voting. Mrs. Roosevelt spoke out against all of these injustices.

The Democratic Party controlled most of the South, and many Southern Democrats held powerful senior positions in the House and Senate. Their intransigence prevented President Franklin Roosevelt from instituting wide ranging civil rights legislation. That opposition did not stop Eleanor Roosevelt, who strongly supported civil rights and was remarkably courageous in her words and actions supporting social justice for African Americans. In the 1950s her work so angered the Ku Klux Klan that they put a $25,000 bounty on her. She received death threats throughout her life because of her work.

Nothing reveals her commitment more than her efforts to outlaw lynching. The anti-lynching movement was as controversial then as the #blacklivesmatter movement is today. Between 1882 and 1968 more than 3,500 African Americans were murdered by lawless white mobs. There were 28 such murders in 1933 alone. The victims were often tortured, beaten, burned alive and hanged. Almost no one was arrested or convicted for these crimes.

ERPamphlet_lynching

In October of 1933, on Maryland’s eastern shore, George Armwood was lynched by “a frenzied mob of 3,000 men, women and children… who overpowered 50 State Troopers.” ( NY Times) The NAACP called on President Roosevelt to condemn the act. Then in November two white men were dragged out of a San Jose jail and hanged. On Dec. 6, 1933 in a nationally broadcast radio address FDR finally spoke his mind about lynching:

This new generation, for example, is not content with preachings against that vile form of collective murder – lynch law – which has broken out in our midst anew. We know that it is murder, and a deliberate and definite disobedience of the Commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” We do not excuse those in high places or in low who condone lynch law.

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Walter White. Photo: Library of Congress

In 1934, Mrs. Roosevelt joined the NAACP and started working with its leader Walter White to help pass federal anti-lynching legislation.

White had been fighting for this type of law since 1922, and helped get the Costigan-Wagner anti-lynching bill before Congress.

Eleanor Roosevelt, Walter White Correspondence

While the bill had strong support, without the President’s personal commitment it was unlikely to get to the floor for a vote. President Roosevelt desperately needed the powerful Southern Democrats in the Senate to pass his New Deal legislation and did not want to risk alienating them over the anti-lynching bill. Tensions were high and so were the stakes. White tried to get an appointment to see the President but was turned down. The President’s closest advisors opposed supporting the bill. White then turned to Mrs. Roosevelt, and she arranged for a private meeting at the White House on May 7, 1934.

Roosevelt friend and biographer Joe Lash later wrote that Mr. White arrived before the President had returned from an outing, and he sat with Eleanor Roosevelt and her mother-in-law Sara and had tea. As he describes it, FDR arrived in good cheer, having spent the afternoon on the Potomac River. But the mood soon changed. As the President explained his predicament, giving one reason after another why he couldn’t support the bill, White countered with detailed arguments. Finally, exasperated, FDR said:

Somebody’s been priming you. Was it my wife?” He looked accusingly at Mrs. Roosevelt.

He explained to White that “If I come out for the anti-lynching bill now, they will block every bill I ask Congress to pass the keep America from collapsing. I just can’t take the risk.” (Lash)

Then in October Claude Neal, an African American farm worker in Florida, was arrested for the rape and murder of Lola Cannady, a white woman. He was abducted from the jail where he was being held, and the leaders of the lynch mob notified the press that justice would be served at the Cannady farm. Hundreds of people turned out to watch the lynching. The mob was so unruly that Neal was taken to a secret location, brutally tortured, castrated and killed. His mutilated body was hung outside the county courthouse. Sheriffs buried Neal, but a large crowd gathered demanding to see the body and a riot broke out. Nearly 200 African Americans were attacked and injured during the riot. The National Guard was eventually brought in to control the mob. The lynching and subsequent riot attracted massive news coverage, and many Americans were outraged and disgusted.

ScanPro443The murder of Claude Neal helped shift public opinion in favor of the anti-lynching laws. It also increased tensions between Walter White and the President. Mrs. Roosevelt found herself a lone voice in support of the anti-lynching act inside the White House. To show her support she attended the NAACP’s exhibition “Art Commentary On Lynching” which graphically depicted white mob violence against African Americans.

The President’s many enemies attacked Mrs. Roosevelt’s actions, and spread vicious rumors about her friendships with African Americans. Even FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover is reported to have thought she had “black blood.” ( source – https://www.gwu.edu/~erpapers/teachinger/lesson-plans/notes-er-and-civil-rights.cfm_)

During January and February of 1935 Eleanor Roosevelt continually pressured the President to publicly support the Costigan bill. But when it came up for a vote, Southern Senators threatened a long filibuster that would effectively block everything on the calendar, including the Social Security Act, which was FDR’s most cherished accomplishment. Despite a heated campaign by White, President Roosevelt remained silent on the filibuster and the anti-lynching bill died without a vote.

The defeat was a bitter blow to Walter White and the NAACP. Mrs. Roosevelt herself was despondent over it. She wrote to Mr. White and told him that:

I am so sorry about the bill. Of course all of us are going on fighting, and the only thing we can do is hope that we will have better luck next time.

But “next time” was no better. In 1937 during another Senate filibuster of another anti-lynching bill, Eleanor Roosevelt sat in the Senate Gallery for days in silent rebuke of the shameful tactic. Once again the bill died without a vote. It was not until 2005 that the US Senate apologized formally for its shocking failure to pass any anti-lynching legislation “…when action was most needed.”

In her My Day column on Dec. 12, 1945, after seeing the Broadway play “Strange Fruit” she wrote this about lynching:

“We need to understand these circumstances in the North as well as in the South. There are mental and spiritual lynchings as well as physical ones, and few of us in this nation can claim immunity from responsibility for some of the frustrations and injustices which face not only our colored people, but other groups, who for racial, religious or economic reasons, are at a disadvantage and face a constant struggle for justice and equality of opportunity.”

Eleanor Roosevelt believed that lynchings and indeed ALL injustices targeting African Americans must be stopped. She believed strongly that black lives did matter. And she fought hardest and spoke out loudest for those who could not defend themselves or who had no voice. Ultimately her efforts to pass federal legislation to prevent lynchings were unsuccessful. But she continued her campaign for civil rights until she died in 1962.

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Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, Mary McLeod Bethune and others at the opening of Midway Hall, one of two residence halls built by the Public Buildings Administration of the Federal Works Agency. Photo: NARA – 533032

Special thanks to Allida Black for her remarkable work on the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project. https://www.gwu.edu/~erpapers/

Sources:
Eleanor And Franklin – Joseph P. Lash
Eleanor Roosevelt Vol.2 – Blanche Wiesen Cook
The Eleanor Roosevelt Encyclopedia – Beasley, Shulman & Beasley

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