One on One: A firebrand North Carolinian and the president’s wife

by D.G. Martin

Chapel Hill, NC – One more question before we forget about the black history month just ended: How did President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1938 visit to the University of North Carolina lead to a long friendship between the president’s wife and a young North Carolina African American woman?

In 1938 in Chapel Hill, Roosevelt made a speech praising UNC for its excellence and progressiveness. In the same year, Pauli Murray’s application to the UNC graduate school was denied because she was African American. She wrote Roosevelt a fiery letter criticizing him for his praise of an institution that did not admit blacks, asking what UNC’s progressivism meant. “Does it mean that Negro students in the South will be allowed to sit down with white students and study a problem which is fundamental and mutual to both groups? Does it mean that the University of North Carolina is ready to open its doors to Negro students . . .? Or does it mean, that everything you said has no meaning for us as Negroes, that again we are to be set aside and passed over . . .?”

Knowing that the president might not respond to her letter promptly, Murray sent a copy to Roosevelt’s wife, Eleanor, hoping her attention might lead to a response.

fireband and 1st ladyMrs. Roosevelt did reply, “I have read the copy of the letter you sent me and I understand perfectly, but great changes come slowly . . . The South is changing, but don’t push too fast.”

Just as some of today’s young African Americans see Hillary Clinton as a less than avid advocate for blacks, Pauli Murray thought Mrs. Roosevelt and her husband were foot draggers on civil rights and unwilling to push hard enough against a system stacked against African Americans. Even though many Americans thought both Roosevelts were pushing much too hard for “Negro rights,” Murray could not even bring herself to vote for Franklin Roosevelt.

firebrand and first ladyNevertheless, Mrs. Roosevelt’s reply to Murray began an ongoing exchange of letters, which itself led to personal meetings and long visits at places where the Roosevelts lived. The warm and respectful friendship that emerged is the subject of “The Firebrand & The First Lady: Portrait of a Friendship: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice,” a new book by Patricia Bell-Scott. It is a beautifully written history of important times, seen through the eyes of two extraordinary women.

Murray was born in 1910, grew up in Durham, and graduated from Hillside High School before going to Hunter College in New York City where she graduated in 1938. After her unsuccessful attempt to gain entrance to graduate school at UNC, she became active in protesting segregation in public facilities and unfair treatment of blacks in the judicial system. She graduated first in her class at Howard Law School. Although Harvard Law School’s graduate program traditionally accepted the top Howard graduates, Murray was denied admission because she was a woman.

Thanks only in part to her friendship and patronage from Mrs. Roosevelt, Murray had an extraordinary career as poet, writer, organizer, promoter, teacher, lawyer, theologian and ordained priest. She was passionate and energetic until her death from cancer in 1985.

Why then is she not a more well-known heroine?

One reason is that she encountered discrimination and challenges on many fronts: As a black person, (denied admission to UNC). As a female (denied admission to Harvard Law’s graduate program). As a victim of McCarthyism (Cornell University denied her a position because of her participation in progressive organizations in the late 1930s and 1940s). And as a lesbian (which kept her from having the kind of social life that would have opened doors for her).

Thanks to “The Firebrand & The First Lady,” her struggles and accomplishments may inspire a new generation of heroes.


D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. (Sunday broadcast is preempted during March.) Preview the upcoming program on the North Carolina digital channel  (Time Warner #1276) on Fridays at 8:00 p.m.

This Thursday’s (March 3) guest is Joseph Bathanti, author of “Half of What I Say Is Meaningless” and “The Life of the World to Come.”

Next Thursday’s (March 10) guest is Frances Mayes, author of “Under Magnolia: A Southern Memoir.”

To view prior programs:

For upcoming programs:

Thursday 5pm March 3 Joseph Bathanti, author of “Half of What I Say Is Meaningless” and “The Life of the World to Come” 

Thursday 5pm March 10 Frances Mayes, author of “Under Magnolia: A Southern Memoir” 

Thursday 5pm March 17 Rob Dunn, author of “The Man Who Touched His Own Heart” 

Thursday 5pm March 24 Hal Crowther, author of “An Infuriating American: The Incendiary Arts of H. L. Mencken”