Patricia Bell-Scott is the author of the new book The Firebrand and the First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice. Her other books include Life Notes, Flat-Footed Truths, and Double Stitch. She is professor emerita of women's studies and human development and family science at the University of Georgia, and she lives in Athens, Georgia.
Q: You note that working on The Firebrand and the First Lady was a “twenty-year odyssey” for you. What motivated you to write about the writer-activist Pauli Murray and Eleanor Roosevelt, and how did the project change over the years you worked on it?
A: This was not a project I undertook consciously. What happened was that in December 1983 I received a letter from Pauli in response to an invitation I issued to her to write an article for a journal.
In her response, saying she was too busy, she made several interesting remarks. She said how pleased she was to hear about the journal, and she also wrote a sentence that stayed with me: You need to know some of the veterans of the battle whose shoulders you now stand on.
At first reading, it sounded like she was pointing a finger and saying, you need to know what you’re doing. I did not know that 18 months later she would be dead. I did not know she’d been ill…
Also in the letter, she mentioned Eleanor Roosevelt and the President’s Commission on the Status of Women. I remember feeling there was more to this letter than there appeared to be. I was so busy with the editorial group launching the journal, it took me by surprise when I got word she had passed. I felt horrible.
It took another seven to nine years—I continued thinking about the letter but it took me between seven and nine years to act on it.
Again, that was by accident—I was working on a project at the Schlesinger Library at Harvard, and Pauli’s papers were there. In the midst of the project, I got up to stretch. I thought I would get up, and look at Pauli’s papers.
The archivist brought me the first box, and I knew immediately what I was supposed to do. I put the other project aside. I had no idea I was going to spend the next 20 years on this project!
When Pauli died, I knew…if I wanted to get the perspective of her friends, I needed to race to interview them [because they were elderly].
I did do some archival work the first few years, but I spent time identifying her friends. The majority were in their 80s, and I was rushing to interview them. I knew the papers would still be there.
Pauli was a pack rat. She had a huge collection at the Schlesinger. That’s why it took me so long. The motivation was Pauli. I realized Pauli’s letter to me was not an accident. The reference to Eleanor Roosevelt and the Commission was another hint to pull me in. That was the inspiration.
Q: How did the concept of the project change?
A: It changed in shape and focus at least three times. It started out, initially, the letters were so interesting, I thought what I would do would be a collection of letters with explanatory text that held them together.
Then that didn’t feel complete, it didn’t have the depth and complexity of the friendship, and there was all this backstory. My sense from the interviews was that there were important issues discussed when they were face to face. Then I thought, maybe I can do more of a hybrid.
That moved me to biography and history. The next change came when I finished the first full-length draft. That ended with Eleanor’s death in 1962.
I knew from [Pauli’s] friends, from personal writings, the letter she sent me, that she kept the friendship alive in her work as an activist and her work to educate successive generations.
Eleanor dies in 1962, but the friendship doesn’t die. That’s when I decided to add the last section. I try to take the reader with Pauli through her life, showing how the legacy of friendship impacted her effort.
Q: How would you describe the relationship between Pauli Murray and Eleanor Roosevelt, and how did each of them influence the other’s views?
A: This is a relationship that changed over time. It started out purely as an encounter through letters, an encounter that started as a contentious affair. It was two combatants, the young upstart, young radical, “New Negro,” impatient with the status quo…
Eleanor Roosevelt’s age-mates who were African American, Mary McLeod Bethune, Walter White, represented organizations—the NAACP, the National Council of Negro Women…they were experienced politicians--in their dealings with Franklin Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt, they were mindful of the impact their positions might have on political issues. They were allies of the administration, to their mutual benefit.
Pauli was not interested in delivering and could not deliver votes. She wanted to speak truth to power. She was not interested in what might be the consequence for specific organizations. She represented herself and young people like her—disenfranchised, impatient. Pauli often was blunt and brutally honest…
The relationship starts out as a cautious elder and an impatient youth. They move to the stage of being political allies and friends. Pauli begins to believe the First Lady is serious about civil rights, is committed, wiling to put herself on the line as much as she can given the constraints on the role of First Lady…they became friendly allies.
After Franklin Roosevelt’s death, the friendship becomes primary to them. It becomes for Pauli one of kinship. She begins to see Eleanor Roosevelt as part of her maternal kin; she was about the same age as the two aunts who raised her…she sees Eleanor as a maternal figure.
There’s a picture in the book of Eleanor and Pauli’s [relatives] in the background. At Val-Kill, after Franklin’s death when the friendship was much more of a personal relationship, Eleanor was extending herself to Pauli’s family. Not only was Pauli having lunch with Eleanor, but Eleanor was inviting Pauli’s aunt, and one of her nieces. It becomes familial in nature.
It was not surprising for me that by the time Eleanor dies in 1962, several years after Pauli’s last aunt passed, it was a tremendous loss for her, the last member of the generation she identifies as her kin.
Q: And how do you think they influenced each other’s views?
A: That’s something that interested me. When they met, Pauli was a young leftist; she always had difficulties dealing with bureaucracies, and found it hard to be patient.
One of the things Eleanor said to Pauli and to young people was that she believed in working within the system until she felt she could make no impact. She had tremendous patience.
One of the things that happened as a result of the friendship, when Pauli was in the last decade of her life, as a result of the friendship, she worked very hard to work within bureaucracies.
When they had their first face-to-face meeting, Pauli was someone who voted for the Socialist Norman Thomas. She was so impatient and could not bring herself to vote for the Democratic Party or the Republican Party.
Even though there was the developing friendship with Eleanor through then ‘40s, she could never bring herself to vote for Franklin. It was not until Truman that she votes for a Democrat for president, and in New York she votes for him on the [Liberal] Party ticket. It was not until Lyndon Johnson that Pauli votes as a Democrat.
In her final years, she was a registered voting Democrat. I trace the development to the influence of Eleanor on Pauli.
When I look at Eleanor, this is the First Lady in her initial correspondence with Pauli, constantly urging patience: I know the laws are awful, but until they are changed we need to obey them. Pauli goes down South and refuses to move to the back of the bus, is tossed in jail in Petersburg, Virginia. Eleanor does inquire about her.
By the early 1960s, Eleanor is not only supporting young civil rights activists who are disobeying [the] law, she’s going to meetings in a place where the laws forbid black and white people meeting. I trace that as part of the pull that comes from the long dialogue and friendship with Pauli.
Pauli moves from the radical left toward the center. On Eleanor’s part, she moves from the center, slightly right of center, to the left. I see more movement on Eleanor’s part, [maybe] because she was freed of her responsibilities as First Lady. There are indications this First Lady has a compassionate heart. They converge toward each other politically.
Q: What surprised you most in the course of your research for the book?
A: I was truly surprised these two women, for whom on first thought we would think of their friendship as such an unlikely occurrence, would have so much in common.
They both have the first given name Anna. Neither preferred or used it. Many people know Eleanor’s first name was Anna; we know her as Eleanor.
Just starting there—the fact that they were both orphaned in childhood was a source of tremendous compassion they had for the vulnerable. Both were raised by elderly kin. Both were lifelong Episcopalians. Both had inquiring minds, and were voracious readers.
Both were innately shy. People will say they didn’t think of Eleanor or Pauli as shy. They were innately shy and learned to push past it to be outspoken for the causes they wanted to serve. Both had phenomenal energy. Eleanor had tremendous energy. Pauli could wear out her most patient friends.
They both suffered from, at least, depressive episodes. For both, for life to be really [positive], they needed to have meaningful work, and they required the presence of cherished friends.
They both had a talent for friendship, and had cherished friends, including their beloved dogs. They both were dog people.
It wasn’t until I felt I had the basic content of the story that I began to see they had so much in common. I was not anticipating this. Pauli was 26 years Eleanor’s junior.
Q: How would you contrast Eleanor Roosevelt’s views about civil rights issues with those of her husband?
A: I would say the difference I feel I saw from my work starts with the depth of Eleanor’s compassion. An issue like housing discrimination, because of her close friendships with people like Pauli, Harry Belafonte, it became a personal issue for her, more than just policy and politics.
If an issue came up and there was talk about what to do about someone who couldn’t rent an apartment, because she had close friends who faced challenges, she could see their suffering, it was personal for her, and something she could not let go.
For FDR, he had some contact with African Americans but not the kind of personal and long-term relationships. His thinking was typically around the idea of what was possible in terms of pragmatics.
For Eleanor, those were secondary. The issue of lynching caused issues with FDR with black leaders; they wanted him to speak out. Eleanor had a close relationship with Mary McLeod Bethune and Walter White, and they were giving her accounts. She turned to her husband, and was lobbying him on behalf of legislation. She asked would you mind if I speak out, and he said OK.
He worried what it might do to his relationship with Southern legislators. For her, the difference seemed to start with her connections to people whose experiences she came to understand. Having a policy wasn’t theoretical, it was personal.
Q: Are you working on another book now?
A: I am not actively—this was just out two months ago! I’m involved in the campaign for this book. I’m in the stage where I’m thinking about another book. All I know is that it will probably have something to do with friendship.
All my previous work focused around women’s personal narratives. This book as well as some of my favorite biographies—David McCullough’s of John Adams—they pull my heartstrings. When it comes to friendship, I love the idea of looking at a life through history, looking at relationships…
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: This is not directly about the book, but is related. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the National Organization for Women. Now, most historians and activists would say the President’s Commission on the Status of Women, for which Eleanor Roosevelt served as the inaugural chair, on which Pauli served on the committee on women’s civil and legal rights, helped lay the ground for the establishment of NOW.
As a result of that work, Pauli was in contact with several women who became the leaders of NOW.
Another thing mentioned in the book is Pauli’s family memoir Proud Shoes. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the publication of Proud Shoes. It’s a really important literary work.
Pauli uses a technique we now consider standard—it’s written like a novel. It was before Roots. It looks at her ancestors in a historical context and up close. Eleanor was a major source of encouragement while Pauli was writing this. She shared chapters with Eleanor.
I’d like readers to know this is an important year for Proud Shoes and for an organization that owes its existence in part to Pauli and Eleanor.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb