Originally printed in Ebony 9 (February 1953): 16-20, 22, 24-26.
It is a bit odd, perhaps, that I came to know Negroes and find among them many good friends, after I had first had contacts with foreigners. From my earliest childhood I had literary contacts with Negroes, but no personal contacts with them.
Reading about Negroes came about this way: On Saturdays we visited my great aunt Mrs. James King Gracie, who had been born and brought up on a Georgia plantation. She would read to us from the Brer Rabbit books and tell us about life on the plantation. This was my very first introduction to Negroes in any way.
It was rather a happy way to meet the people with whom I was later to make many friends because all the stories our aunt told us were about delightful people. Our aunt had conducted a school for little Negro children and taught many of them when no other facilities for education were available to them.
But it was not until I was more than 15 and in Europe that I actually met a Negro. It was even after I had worked at a Rivington Street settlement in New York that I met and knew Negroes. That was after I returned from Europe and I was very shocked to hear some of our little American youngsters calling the children of immigrants by opprobrious names. I felt it was dreadful. After all, I had been a guest in those children's parents' countries.
While in Paris I very likely met Negroes, but they made no special impression, very likely because they were English-speaking Americans just as I was. I never dreamed they had a special problem of any kind.
I think I really began to understand their problem when I went to Washington, D.C., for the first time. Millie and Frances came to work for us and I learned a great deal from them. I think Millie and Frances were the first Negroes I ever shook hands with. But that is just customary. I always shake hands with older people.
Perhaps my first really close friendship with a Negro of about my own age started with a woman who is now a dear friend: Mrs. Mary McLeod Bethune. When I first met her I did not realize that the years would bring us so close together, but I was from the first meeting deeply impressed with her Christianity and intelligence.
I do not recall whether we first met in Daytona Beach or in Washington. Perhaps she can recall our first meeting. She might have asked me down to her school or I may have first met her after her appointment in Washington. But it was in Washington that we really got to know each other very, very well. I have always marveled at her and thought it was wonderful that she could go through so many hardships and emerge so free of bitterness.
I remember clearly the first time we lunched together because of something shocking that happened before the lunch. The lunch was with a white lady who was deeply interested in Bethune-Cookman College. Mrs. Bethune told me there had been considerable question as to whether she could lunch with us in Florida. It was quite a shock to me because it seemed so perfectly dreadful that there should be any question about it.
Later she often came to the White House. I can't tell about any particular meal because there were so manyshe came to many things. And the National Council of Negro Women came. And a great many other colored women were in the other organizations which came.
Entertaining in Washington
This was so much so that in later years newspaper people did not even notice when there were colored people present at various functions. I remember at the last inauguration I was so tired I could not see the faces in front of me. They all merged, and I did not know whom they were, even my best friends. Finally one of the women reporters came up to me and said, "You have not been around all the rooms and you have not seen all the people who are here. But I want to tell you if this were the first inauguration, I would write a story that would be headlined all over the country 'Negroes Invade White House.' I have just walked through the rooms. There are many colored people here. All have come because of their jobs or invitations. Some are friends of yours, but all are here because they have the right to be, and it is not news any more."
I thought that was very good because once you get to take a thing for granted, you lose self-consciousness about it. For myself I take it for granted and I now have colored friends of all ages. I have a habit of making friends with young people and I have a great many young colored friends. Some I don't see very often, but when we do meet we have wonderful times.
One of my finest young friends is a charming woman lawyerPauli Murray, who has been quite a firebrand at times but of whom I am very fond. She is a lovely person who has struggled and come through very well. I think there were times when she might have done foolish things. But now I think she is well ready to be of real use.
My relationship with Pauli is very satisfying. I notice I call her by her first name. I was brought up in another generation. It is not easy for me to call people by their first names. It is not easy for me to have people call me by my first name. Now I notice that all the younger people who are really close friends of mine call me "Mrs. R." When they are younger it is quite easy for me to call them by their first names. That is why I call Pauli by her given name.
But with people of my own age I address them as Mr. or Mrs. It does not change the way I feel about them. It is just the way I was brought up. But those are not set rules of conduct. I simply call Walter White "Walter." And, by the way, he calls me "Eleanor" which is very rare. I think he just started calling me by my first name shortly after we met. It was the thing he wanted to do. I accepted it because most people don't dare. It is rather difficult for most people to address me by my given name.
It was at the Paris General Assembly in 1951. Dr. Tobias had to deliver an important statement. I wanted to sit behind him, but they told me I was not supposed to because I was the leader of the delegation at the time. To have sat behind could be interpreted by some to mean I was advising him or telling him what to say. No one ever has to tell Dr. Tobias what to say. But the next day he had to answer a Russian charge.
I sneaked out and came back in to sit behind Dr. Tobias. The Russian delegate said, "Mr. Tobias, you should not be here telling us about our treatment of spies. You should be telling us about how your people are treated in the United States." He named every state in the Union, telling of its laws. Then he mentioned Georgia.
Dr. Tobias in his calm, learned way said: "I was born in the state of Georgia which has such bad laws. But today I represent my entire country in the United Nations. I have never said that we do not have states with bad laws, nor that we do not have states with good laws which are not enforced. I do say that we have the opportunity to move forward and so I am proud to represent my countryall 48 states."
Then Dr. Tobias went back to his original point, but there was dead silence from the Russians. It was a most eloquent handling of what could have been an embarrassing situation. If I had argued the point it would not have had half the effect it had coming from him.
For years my work has brought me in contact with Negroes and that is why I have made friends with them. Through my work at the UN I met one of the grandest people I know. His name is Ralph Bunche. He is always the senior adviser on colonial problems. I also know his wife.
I should like him to reconsider someday because I should like to see him in any post we had to give. I particularly would like to see him as an ambassador to a country which required the special qualities he has. He has such special qualities that I should like to choose rather carefully the country to which he should be sent to represent us.
On a more casual level I know A. Philip Randolph. I think he is serene, charming and nice looking. I only have had the pleasure of seeing him at various labor dinners and on committees with labor people.
I know him about as well as I knew the late Dr. Louis T. Wright. I felt that Dr. Wright had done wonderful things in the medical field and I always wanted to become better acquainted. I regret that it is now too late. There are so many grand people to meetyou cannot really get to know them all.
Edith Sampson is a great friend of mine. I am very fond of her because she is a warm person. I like her very much but I realize that because she is so warm and so outgoing, she sometimes irritates people. A few people object to her manner, but I understand it and like it.
I always kiss her when we meet but I don't think I call her by her first name. My grandchildren in Paris loved her. She was wonderful to themshe went shopping with them and they thought she was marvelous. I agree with them and I recall an amusing little story about her.
She was in one of the Scandinavian countries and discovered that a reissue of Uncle Tom's Cabin had been published there. She wrote to me to ask me how she could possibly tell the people and make them understand that Uncle Tom is dead.
She did well, I think, on those trips. I have a high regard for her. I recognize the things that people might find in her that rub them the wrong way. But I think they come from such a warm heart and a desire to be friends that I like them. In friendship it is necessary to understand your friend's good and bad qualities. It must be a mutual examination of each other and it must be forgiving and understanding. Sometimes, in my friendship with Edith Sampson I have found that she will do almost more than is necessary. As a result she may make people a little uncomfortable by her over-friendliness. I, of course am never made uncomfortable.
Two personalities have made a significant but different contribution to our United Nations delegationChanning Tobias and Edith Sampson. He is a different kind of person. He is friendly and warm, but quiet and an intellectual. He has a very different contribution to make. You cannot compare these two people professionally or as friends because they are so different. I not only think Mrs. Sampson did well on all her trips but she made friends for us in the U.N. Because I know her so well and like her so much I would like everyone to appreciate her contribution.
Negro Friends Never Self-Seeking
Among women of my own age, as I said, Mrs. Bethune is my closest friend, but I always have young friends too. Old, young or middle-aged, all my Negro friends are quite interesting people, and they are never self-seeking. Rarely do they ask personal favors, and if they do, it is with great embarrassment. I appreciate that. Often they ask for favors, or help, for other people however. That is a different kind of request, and one that is often easier to grant.
A man who often has asked for my intervention or advice is Walter White. It is always, however, for someone else. I think Walter is a sensitive man and a friendly man and I like to list him among my personal friends. He has suffered often I fear and I remember one story which shows the kind of loyalty he has to his race. One time he said he was washing his hands in the Senate washroom, I think. One of the senators came in and asked him: "Why do you insist on being a Negro?"
Walter's response was so simple and so all-embracing. He said, "Because I am a Negro." He is as fair as any Nordic and I can see how it is difficult to consider him a Negro, but he told me his father was unmistakably colored.
One of my younger friends is Josh White. I met Josh at a concert at which he was singing, and asked him if he would come to Hyde Park to sing at a Christmas party for the children from Wiltwyck School. I, also, invited his son, little Josh, because he sings too. They both came and we became friends.
Two of my best friends are Mrs. Alice Freeman and William White. They run my home at Hyde Park and I would be lost without them. Alice has been with me for fourteen years and of course I rely on her completely.
My son told Josh that I was looking for a man to stay in the house as I did not think it a good idea for women to stay in the country without a man around the house. Josh surprised him by his answer. He said, "I think my brother William would like to see your mother." At first, I did not think William would like it too well. He had been in the entertainment world a long time with Josh, I knew. One day without announcement, William appeared. We shook hands and he sat down and I interviewed him.
I said to him: "It will be very difficult for you to do housework, to drive a car." William said, "No, Mrs. Roosevelt, since the war, I don't feel like singing anymore." That was three years ago, and he has been with me ever since. I have an affectionate feeling for William, and I hope he has an affectionate feeling for me.
Some of my Negro friends thought that I was creating what they call a social problem by having one brother as a rather frequent guest and another brother as a servant more or less. I never saw that as a problem. Each has a dignified, necessary contribution to make.
Sometimes, when Josh comes, William will come in and sing with his brother, but I always have to persuade him. Sometimes, I cannot persuade him, so Josh sings alone, unless Elliott or one of the other boys joins in.
There are many times when Josh comes, and I don't know anything about it. He simply drops in to see his brother. Then he and William eat together. Sometimes, when Josh comes as a guest, he says, "I'd rather eat with William." And he does. Other times he eats with us, and William serves us. It seems most reasonable to me, and I have never had the slightest difficulty from the arrangement and never expect any. Perhaps, that is because I never saw anything unusual in it.
I don't think I have ever lost a Negro friend. One that I could have lost had we been friends would have been Paul Robeson, but I never really knew him. I had a great admiration for him as an artist. I was once told the story of his youth and I held him in high regard. I deeply regret that because of his gratitude to the Russian people for giving him what he thought he wanted, he has allowed himself to be fooled by the kind of life he was able to lead there. I think he has done his people and my good friends a disservice. In a way, he has misused his great talent to do this. It is too bad, because he should be using his talents to help rather than to destroy his country.
Despite his intelligence, I feel that he has not demonstrated any analytical qualities. Surely he has not examined the Soviet system, because it does not permit real democratic freedom. The kindest thing I can say about him is, perhaps, that he believes that communism will give all people equality. This everyone should have. But Mr. Robeson and all of us have a greater chance of getting it here in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world.
One of the odd things about my Negro friends is their consistent failure to invite me to their social gatherings. I am rarely invited to their weddings, musicals or teas. I invariably invite them to my house, but the invitation is not returned. I suppose this is because they have an understanding of my busy schedule and are a little shy.
That is my only concern in inviting guests in. Some of my white neighbors around Hyde Park were alarmed when Father Divine bought across the river from us, but they were never alarmed at seeing Negro guests at my table.
Once some of my neighbors and I were serving at a big buffet party. One of my neighbors found she was serving a Negro guest. Afterwards she told me she had never thought that she would serve and talk with a Negro. She said it did not bother her at all and she was glad that it did not.
Now that I recall that small incident, I am reminded of another, much bigger one. At a political meeting in Georgia during one of my husband's campaigns they placed on each seat in the auditorium a crude drawing showing me dancing with a Negro. Under the picture it said "Nigger LoverEleanor." At that time I had never danced with a colored person and the drawing was a fabrication and an insult to me and to Negroes because of the nasty word they used.
During that period there were many strange and unreal rumors circulated against my husband and me in the South. I remember they had something they called "Eleanor Clubs." Negro members of these clubs were supposed to push white people on Thursdays or something really strange.
I asked my close Negro friends if they had ever heard of such a club. Of course they had not because they did not exist. Then Franklin had the Secret Service and FBI investigate. We found not one single "Eleanor Club" and we never found out who started the rumors. I do not personally mind being criticized because of my friends. But that was at a time when criticism of me could have hurt my husband and because of that I was worried.
The American people knew that the "Eleanor Club" was a pure fabrication and most of them did not believe they existed. Shortly after that, while we were in the White House, we began to hear another kind of story from some of my Negro friends. The story was that I had advised and encouraged the President in his awareness of the needs of Negroes in America. One of the versions of the story was that I was responsible for FEPC and other things the President believed in. This is not true.
Franklin always had an awareness of the most important things he had to do. If he had to get the southern vote in order to get something essential to the whole country, he could not take a stand that would upset the South. But he never said that I could not take a stand. Sometimes, after talks with my Negro friends and with their white friends too, I used to ask Franklin "Do you mind if I do so and so." And he would answer: "I shall stand or fall on what I have been able to accomplish. You have a right to do what you think is right."
He did not know Negroes as individuals and as friends as well as I did. He was not able to get about easily. But I had the opportunity to do so and I made friends. I was never asked by him not to do anything I wanted to do with them or for them. Franklin had such a deep sense of justice and an over-riding wish to see all Americans treated as equals that he never prevented me from taking any stand even though I sometimes worried if my actions in regards to my friends would harm his campaigns.
In a way I feel that it is harder for a Negro to become friends with a white person than for a white person to accept a Negro friend. In the past the Negro has been hurt much more and sometimes he has become bitter and hesitant.
Mrs. Bethune is not bitter however, or is Mrs. Sampson hesitant. There is great fear among some people about the development of social equality but I believe it can be achieved. Friendships can be lasting and valuable.