Racial justice did not always concern Eleanor Roosevelt. Although she began her social activism working with the immigrant communities of the Rivington Street Settlement House in 1903, ER began to recognize racial discrimination only after she moved to the White House in 1933.
As she traveled the nation, ER witnessed the seemingly intractable hardships wrought by the Great Depression. Lorena Hickok's field reports detailed the inadequacies of Federal Emergency Relief Administration programs and brought individual stories of personal hardship to ER's attention. And although ER had visited African Americans when she toured poverty stricken areas the summer after she became First Lady, she did not recognize the depth of institutional racism until she pressured the Subsistence Homestead Administration to admit African Americans to Arthurdale. Her intervention failed and she invited NAACP Executive Secretary Walter White and the presidents of African American universities to the White House to discuss the situation. This unprecedented meeting quickly became a tutorial on racial discrimination and lasted until midnight. ER then pressured National Recovery administrator Donald Richberg to investigate the raced-based wage differentials implemented by southern industries and asked Navy secretary Claude Swanson why blacks were confined to mess hall assignments. Photo
ER embraced a civil rights agenda which accepted segregation and championed equal opportunity. Quality education became her top public priority. As she told the Conference on Negro Education, "wherever the standard of education is low, the standard of living is low" and urged states to address the inequities in public school funding. Her symbolic outreach generated a strong response from African Americans. The African American press and a strong communication network extolled her efforts. By January 1934, she received thousands of letters describing racial violence, poverty and homelessness exacerbated by racial discrimination, and pleading for some type of assistance. She frequently forwarded some of these letters to Harry Hopkins and Aubrey Williams, to whom she had already sent a list of suggestions on ways to include African Americans more fully within Federal Emergency Relief Administration programs… Read complete article - Eleanor Roosevelt and Civil Rights – National Historic Site – U.S. Department of the Interior Audio & video