Irvin and Elizabeth McDuffie

“Throughout the nation today, colored men and women are playing the part in the government under President Roosevelt’s New Deal that we have awaited . . . these seventy years which have passed since President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.”

                   —Elizabeth McDuffie, Campaign Speech, St. Louis, Missouri, 1936 

Elizabeth and Irvin McDuffie, two Black members of the White House staff, became an informal back channel at the White House for African American leaders. Photo: Atlanta University Center Robert W. Woodruff Library

Two Black members of the White House household staff performed a unique role in conveying African American concerns to FDR. Roosevelt’s valet, Irvin McDuffie, had worked for FDR since 1927 and interacted closely with him every day. “Next to his wife, I am around the President more than anyone else,” he told a reporter from the Baltimore Afro-American. “I am the first he sees in the morning and the last at night.” Irvin’s wife, Elizabeth, whom everyone called “Lizzie,” was Eleanor Roosevelt’s personal maid in the residence and developed an easy bantering relationship with the President. A child of Georgia sharecroppers, she had earned a degree from Morris Brown College in Atlanta and knew NAACP leader Walter White. She told FDR she “was going to serve as his ‘SASOCPA, self-appointed-secretary-on-colored-people’s affairs.’”

Elizabeth McDuffie, Eleanor Roosevelt’s personal maid, received letters like this from individuals who knew of her connection to the Roosevelts. After reading this letter describing discriminatory practices at the Washington, DC Post Office, McDuffie passed it on to FDR. The President subsequently ordered an investigation. NAID 311315389

The McDuffies informed FDR of discrimination in New Deal jobs programs and became an informal back channel at the White House for Black leaders. Early in the Roosevelt administration, Walter White used the couple to circumvent Oval Office gatekeepers who kept him from meeting personally with the President. They also received unsolicited letters from African Americans voicing concerns or requesting aid. Elizabeth became an organizer for the United Government Employees union and brought cases of racial discrimination in federal employment to FDR’s attention. She also made recommendations to the President and First Lady regarding Black artists who might perform at the White House. In 1936 and again in 1940, she went on the campaign trail for the President in Black communities, delivering speeches to audiences in the Midwest.

F. D. R. VALET’S WIFE ON NEW DEAL TRAIL. (1936, Oct 17). The New York Amsterdam News (1922-1938) Retrieved from Proquest. ©The New York Amsterdam News.