The White House meeting, a half-century ago, had moments of drama. The group assessing a New Deal youth program included President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor, but a shrewd black woman emerged as the star. It was Mary McLeod Bethune as she described the economic and educational deprivation of black youths. Roosevelt gave Bethune a federal directorship to solve the problem.
That meeting was but one chapter in a tale of two women from two different worlds, for Eleanor Roosevelt had brought Bethune to her husband. We've heralded Eleanor Roosevelt this fall, during the centennial of her birth. Mary Bethune's centennial came quietly, however, nine years ago.
Their work together is worth noting because it occurred when the gulf between the races was great, but not beyond the reach of two women who embraced each other to improve society.
Theirs was, as Bettye Collier-Thomas, director of the Bethune Museum-Archives here, told the American Political Science Association, "one of history's greatest collaborations."
The differences in their backgrounds could not have been greater. Eleanor Roosevelt had family and social connections, and from her marriage she became what Harry Truman called "the first lady of the world."
Bethune was born in poverty and lacked prestige, but gained renown for her work as an educator and founder of a college. She also became president of the National Council of Negro Women.
The fact that these differences didn't hopelessly divide them is a tribute to their courage, intelligence and compassion.
Eleanor Roosevelt believed that sexism and racial bias should be eliminated. Bethune believed these goals would be advanced when powerful people like the Roosevelts were told how these problems worked and affected people.
While their collaboration lasted 28 years, it was most intense from 1935 to 1945, during Franklin Roosevelt's presidency.
Collier-Thomas said, "Bethune served as an unofficial adviser to both Eleanor and Franklin, and as a minister with portfolio to represent and interpret the Roosevelt administration to black Americans."
Reflect, for a moment, on those times to understand the impact of this historian's observation: Jackie Robinson had not yet cracked the barrier against blacks in major league baseball. Harry Truman had not desegregated the Armed Forces. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had not marched to Selma. The Supreme Court had not ruled against segregated schools.
But it was the '30s, and something had happened to give Eleanor Roosevelt a chance to dramatize the race issue. The Daughters of the American Revolution refused Marian Anderson permission to sing in Constitution Hall because she was black. Eleanor Roosevelt publicly resigned from the club in an action read in news reports around the world.
In 1932, most blacks were Republicans, and had been so for 60 years. With the 1936 election projected as a close one, Eleanor Roosevelt suggested to her husband that they encourage "some Negro speakers, like Mary McLeod Bethune, to speak at church meetings and that type of Negro organization," and Bethune traveled around the country extolling the Roosevelt administration's accomplishments.
In 1936, blacks moved overwhelmingly to the Democrats. "The reason," historian Nancy Weiss would later explain, "was economic. The New Deal saved countless ordinary black people from economic disaster, hunger and despair." A brain trust of blacks who served in government positions became known as the "Black Cabinet," and Bethune often transmitted their concerns to the first family.
But Bethune had a private agenda, as well, shrewdly promoting her women's organization and identifying benefactors for her school.
There are those who would now attempt to belittle the Roosevelts as friends of blacks, but they mistakenly try to view history with a contemporary eye. That contribution, spurred by Eleanor Roosevelt's zeal, was crucial to later progress.
When, in her memoirs, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote of Bethune, the educator responded with graciousness: " . . . It is always a joy to know and to believe that one's friends are legion, that among the finest of them, one is remembered."