In the spring of 1937, Eleanor Roosevelt produced a startlingly candid autobiography. Serialized monthly from May to October—and published as a book on November 15—This Is My Story took Ladies’ Home Journal readers by surprise. The First Lady not only confessed to still-raw family disagreements and failings but analyzed herself ruthlessly, confronting her feelings of shame and grief over publicized tragedies that had beset her uncle and her husband, respectively, the 26th and 32nd presidents of the United States.
In the second of my 10 years writing Eleanor’s life, I discovered a strange thing about the publication of This Is My Story. While newspaper reviewers in white America greeted the book with universal acclaim for the First Lady’s “stark honesty” and “remarkable frankness,” the nation’s Black press protested Eleanor Roosevelt’s use of a degrading stereotype.
On April 17, the Baltimore Afro-American called attention to the “serious error made by Mrs. Roosevelt when twice she uses the epithet ‘d—y’ to designate members of the colored race. The error becomes grievously regrettable when one realizes the broad grasp that the First Lady has on public sentiment and the interpretation that is bound to come from her lack of thoughtful respect for a group that had come to believe in her with such profound admiration.”
The appalled editors had every reason to take Eleanor not just as a friend but the friend of racial equality in Washington. She had even joined the Washington, D.C., chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People—an unheard-of crossing of racial lines in the mid-1930s—to make common cause with the organization’s national executive secretary, Walter White, whom Eleanor brought into the White House with the presidents of six Black universities for a history-making meeting to address segregation with the president.
Now, the Afro-American was bringing the “darky” issue back to Eleanor. “What are we to believe?” managing editor George B. Murphy Jr. asked in a letter. “In light of your wide and democratic contacts throughout the country, it hardly seems possible to us that you were unaware of the fact that no self-respecting colored American tolerates, or condones the terms ‘nigger’ or ‘darky’ through which the white South makes known its contempt for colored citizens.”
To my surprise, Eleanor did not at first do very much. She did respond promptly to a graduate of Tuskegee University, who demanded to know how “the paragon of American womanhood” could “use the hated and humiliating ‘darky’” by explaining that she had grown up hearing it as a term of favor and trust. “I have always considered it in that light,” maintained Eleanor. “I am sorry if it hurt you.” Awkwardly, she added, “What do you prefer?”
The Afro-American concluded its April 17 editorial, “In this stage in this serious matter let’s be generous and say the First Lady did not mean this epithet as an affront, or that she is ignorant of its serious consequences. Then at least she [owes] American colored citizens an immediate apology, else she has done us a greater wrong than any good she has ever done.”
The appalled editors had every reason to take Eleanor not just as a friend but the friend of racial equality in Washington.
I searched for an apology. Typically, Eleanor would read her most pressing mail with a pencil. Responding to a letter from a newspaper editor such as George Murphy, she would write the essence of her reply directly on the bottom of the letter so that her personal assistant, Malvina “Tommy” Thompson, could type it up for her signature. Sure enough, there on the bottom of the Murphy letter, I found a scrawled note: “Usual explanation/will make correction in book.”
Eleanor’s handwriting was famously atrocious, but I was now familiar enough with it to see that, actually, this note was not by Eleanor but by Tommy—reminding herself to give the “usual explanation” to the Afro-American, which went as follows:
In writing her autobiography, Mrs. Roosevelt was quoting her great aunt, who was born in Georgia and lived on a plantation, and who had great affection for the colored people. When Mrs. Roosevelt referred to them as darkies it was a term of affection. She was talking of that period and quoting her great aunt, and the word had been used in all the early stories as they were told to Mrs. Roosevelt.
This was so close to a deliberate lie that I remember when I read it at my desk in the Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. Research Room at the F.D.R. Library in Hyde Park, I looked up suddenly. Hey! Does anybody know about this? I knew enough by then about Eleanor and Tommy to see their “usual explanation” as, at the very least, an un-usual evasion.
Bulloch Hall, the antebellum plantation in Roswell, Georgia, where Eleanor’s grandmother and great-aunt had grown up, had provided the setting for the nursery tales told by Eleanor’s great-aunt Anna Bulloch Gracie. Her Roosevelt aunt Corinne remembered these as “the most wonderful darkie stories,” picturing “an ideal life,” which Eleanor, in her turn, had taken in as “delightful plantation tales.” Great-aunt Gracie had made a point of attributing dignity and moral nobility to the enslaved people of Bulloch Hall, layering in post-bellum sentimentality and a guilty veneration of Roswell’s Blacks as higher spiritual, musical, and physical beings. But the real purpose of the antebellum-plantation fantasy was to fuse the displaced and dispossessed generations of Gilded Age southerners more deeply together in their new alien home in the industrializing New York City of the 1870s.
The reality of Roswell, of course, had been nothing so pleasant. To keep up Bulloch Hall, a genuine ivory casket of southern vanity, the Bullochs had depended on no fewer than 19 human possessions. Jammed into the slave quarters were 11 adults and eight children, none of the latter too small to be given to the younger Bullochs “for their own”—as “shadows”—which conferred a terrible power upon their little masters and mistresses. Almost any abuse could be gotten away with—and was. Indeed, when Eleanor’s grandmother Mittie’s half-brother Daniel Stewart Elliott murdered his same-age “bondchild,” known as “Slave Mat,” in a fit of rage, he could only be “punished” by a year’s tour of Europe. Just as Ulysses S. Grant was the last president to have owned an enslaved person, so Theodore Roosevelt would be the only president to have an uncle who had killed one.
“She [owes] American colored citizens an immediate apology, else she has done us a greater wrong than any good she has ever done.”
Eleanor had never fully adjusted herself to the Jim Crow laws governing Warm Springs (formerly Bullochville), Georgia, her husband’s now world-famous polio-recovery resort. “There is no more respectable, respected, or looked-up-to family in the history of Georgia than these Bullochs,” wrote a young Atlanta Journal–Constitution reporter named Margaret Mitchell after interviewing Mittie’s surviving bridesmaids about details of antebellum life at Bulloch Hall for a novel she was writing.
Eleanor enjoyed Gone with the Wind—the literary event of the age when it was published, in 1936, the year before the episode with the Afro-American. She slow-read the novel for pleasure, focusing her curiosity on the female survival power of southern women as they endured the war and overcame their northern invaders during Reconstruction. She especially noted the acrid consequences of Scarlett’s inability to understand the interchangeable weaknesses and strengths of the men she loved. Eleanor, who believed that her most intimate relationships could only be fulfilled by the selfless love of another, took Scarlett’s bitterness at having loved only selfishly as “perhaps the wisest piece of psychology in the book.”
The David O. Selznick Oscar machine that followed, riddled with racist language and offensive to Blacks even in 1939, might have sealed forever the myth of the Old South, or, anyway, until Gone with the Wind’s recent return to HBO Max accompanied by a woke disclaimer warning that the classic film “denies the horrors of slavery.” (The movie had put Franklin to sleep. When the Roosevelts screened the epic in the White House, the president dozed off in the middle, and when he awakened to discover that the picture was still going, he became enraged: “No movie has a right to be that long,” thundered F.D.R.)
And yet, time and again when confronted with the choice—either curl up into a little ball or face her trouble and make herself stronger—Eleanor had always survived by conceding the horrors of the past, even as she recognized in them the projection of an exceptional destiny. Eleanor would not come right out and publicly apologize for using a demeaning racial slur in 1937, because the same part of her that advised moderation to activists seeking rapid systemic change also manifested in the care she took as an intermediary to understand both sides. When speaking or writing to white southerners as First Lady, Eleanor never hesitated to say that, because of her Georgia ancestry, she had “always had an understanding of the problems facing Southern white people on interracial questions.” She forthrightly stated that she “quite understood the Southern point of view” and was “familiar with the old plantation life.”
Eleanor took in her aunt’s “wonderful darkie stories” as “delightful plantation tales.”
The plantation language that had crept into her autobiography came not from Georgian slaveholders but far more directly from her own Ashley Wilkes, her dreamy but fundamentally weak father, a volume of whose letters (Hunting Big Game in the Eighties) Eleanor had proudly published during her first year in the White House, almost as a reminder to her alienated cousins among the Theodore Roosevelt clan that the Ugly Duckling daughter of their disgraced Uncle Elliott was now the swan in charge at the Roosevelt White House.
In the very last letter that nine-year-old Eleanor received from her father, in August 1894, the severely diminished Elliott had referred, though not by name, to a 39-year-old stablehand, John Smith of Abingdon, Virginia, who was serving as groom and personal caretaker during these months of Elliott Roosevelt’s fatal descent into alcoholism. Elliott cavalierly mocked and fat-shamed Smith as a kind of minstrel figure, calling him “my Darky coachman”—the very phrase Eleanor had borrowed. And when Smith himself reappeared 40 years later, at 78, Eleanor, as First Lady, received him at the White Top Folk Music Festival, on the top of a mountain near Abingdon, where, in the protested phrase from her autobiography, “the old darky who had been my father’s servant” joined her at the ceremonies to pass along a teacup that had been among her father’s possessions—a piece of a larger tea service belonging, coincidentally, to the Georgia Bullochs.
On May 4, 1937, Tommy Thompson avowed to the offended editors in Baltimore that “Mrs. Roosevelt had not the slightest intention of hurting anyone’s feelings and will change this word in the book, now that it has been brought to her attention.” Whereupon the Afro-American headlined the news on page one of its May 8 edition: Mrs. Roosevelt Apologizes. The editors then put the matter to rest with one final note: “In agreeing to have the offensive expression removed from her book, Mrs. Roosevelt again has displayed the sympathy, kindliness, and understanding which have lifted her high above the national position and esteem earned by the wife of any President before her time.”
That’s when I discovered the real surprise. I had recently noticed that Eleanor dedicated This Is My Story to her father’s memory. On a hunch, I picked up the first edition, published on November 15, 1937, seven months after the Afro-American had objected to the appearance of the offensive word in the serial––to say nothing of Eleanor’s avowed intention to change it ahead of the book’s publication. Yet there it remained––untouched––twice on page 32: darky. Still there; Eleanor had neither eliminated nor replaced it. True to form, she had stubbornly honored her father’s language, which for the next quarter of a century remained in all editions of This Is My Story. Only in 1961, when Harper & Brothers condensed all three of her memoirs to form a single-volume Autobiography of Eleanor Roosevelt, was the unhealed past finally expunged.
David Michaelis’s Eleanor is out now from Simon & Schuster