Please enjoy our series of interviews with each of the finalists for the 2017 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction. For your chance to win a copy of The Firebrand and the First Lady, follow @bookistreader on Twitter and tweet the link to this interview by noon CST tomorrow (December 20, 2016) using the hashtag #Carnegie2017giveaway. We’ll announce the winner on December 21 on Twitter. For information about the other ways were celebrating this year’s Carnegie Medal finalists, click here.
Patricia Bell-Scott, professor emerita of women’s studies and human development and family science at the University of Georgia, achieves two remarkable feats in The Firebrand and the First Lady: Pauli Murray, Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Struggle for Social Justice. This “portrait of a friendship” offers a new perspective on a well-studied figure, Eleanor Roosevelt, and brings an equally fascinating but too-little known writer and activist, Pauli Murray, into the light.
DONNA SEAMAN: In your introduction, you describe the writing of The Firebrand and the First Lady as a twenty-year odyssey, sparked by a brief correspondence with Pauli Murray, which you initiated as cofounder of SAGE: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women. When did you first learn about Pauli Murray, and what impact did her life and achievements have on you?
PATRICIA BELL-SCOTT: I became aware of Pauli Murray in the mid-1970s, when I was developing a course on Black women and discovered her family memoir, Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family (1956). Murray’s book—published nearly three decades before Alex Haley’s Roots: An American Saga, and the groundbreaking television miniseries it spawned—was out-of-print and all but forgotten. But I knew when I read the first chapter that Proud Shoes was a masterpiece. I loved the multidimensional portraits she painted of her maternal ancestors, the Fitzgeralds, and the way she cast them against the historical landscape of slavery and Reconstruction. I loved her use of multiple sources (e.g., government, business, and church records, family diaries, letters, oral histories, and photographs) to construct her narrative. And I loved how Murray told the story. As one astute reviewer noted, “It read practically like a novel.”
I could not have imagined how profoundly I would be impacted by Pauli Murray and her work. Proud Shoes fueled my interest in African American women’s narratives, and that led to my involvement in African American and women’s studies. I became an advocate for an inclusive curriculum, co-founder of the National Women’s Studies Association, and co-founding editor of SAGE: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women. I also co-edited the first women’s studies textbook, But Some Of Us Are Brave, which addressed issues of race, and class, gender. This textbook, and SAGE, caught Murray’s attention, and the letters of encouragement she wrote to me lit my path.
You could have written a biography of Murray. Why did you decide to write about her friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt and thus create a profoundly detailed double portrait?
I chose to write a dual portrait for several reasons. First, I have a personal and scholarly interest in long-term friendships. Second, I was intrigued by Murray’s reference to Eleanor Roosevelt in what proved to be her last letter to me. Third, I believed that the chapters devoted to E. R. in Murray’s autobiography called for deeper exploration, and I had the sense that Murray hoped someone would take the bait. Finally, my intuition about the significance Murray attached to the friendship was confirmed when I came across a letter in which she told a friend that she was making notes for a biography that would probably not be published in her lifetime. That work, as Murray envisioned it, would ideally begin with her “friendship with Mrs. R.” and the struggle to enroll in the graduate school at the University of North Carolina. Upon reading this, I felt that I’d been given my marching orders. I took a deep breath and determined to do my best.
I was fascinated by this long-term friendship, and I wanted to understand what drew together the granddaughter of a mixed-race slave reared in North Carolina and a native New Yorker, whose ancestry entitled her to membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution. I wanted to understand the nature of their unlikely friendship, and how it changed over time. I wondered what individual needs the relationship satisfied, how they were changed by it, and what significance it had for the cause of social justice. To do this required a dual biography.
The differences in Roosevelt and Murray’s backgrounds and ages are obvious; discovering what they had in common must have been exciting. What surprised or touched you the most as you studied their phenomenal lives?
There were several surprising coincidences. For instance, they shared the given name Anna, which neither preferred or used. Both lost their parents as children and were raised by elderly kin. They were sensitive, compassionate, and lifelong Episcopalians. They had inquiring minds. They were voracious readers. They loved poetry and they loved to write. They had phenomenal energy, yet they were not immune to low spirits or anxiety. They were innately shy, but learned to be outspoken. Their well-being required meaningful work, physical activity, and the company of cherished friends, which included their dogs.
Their accomplishments as public figures were remarkable, but I was also moved by their compassion as private individuals. I’m an animal lover, and I was touched by their relationships with dogs. Pauli Murray had a soft spot for strays. In 1970, she met Roy, a two-year-old black Labrador retriever, in a veterinarian’s office, waiting to be put down after a hit-and-run driver crushed his left hind leg. Murray could not bear the thought of Roy dying alone and so she took him home and nursed him. He rallied, and Murray had his leg surgically repaired. Roy would run, swim, and happily fetch sticks until his death a decade later.
After Franklin Roosevelt’s death in 1945, E. R. and Fala, the president’s black Scottish Terrier, became inseparable. They regularly walked together in the woods and E. R. often wrote about him in her “My Day” column. She wept when he died, and several of his offspring continued to live on the Roosevelt estate with her.
You do an extraordinary job of balancing the personal and the public lives of these two trailblazing human rights activists, while also illuminating major twentieth-century events. Did this require a great deal of revision as you went along? Did you have to keep winnowing your material down to keep it focused and crisp? What was your greatest challenge?
I’ve lost track of the number of times I revised the manuscript. I remember that the earliest drafts focused narrowly on the letters between Pauli Murray and Eleanor Roosevelt, and the narrative felt fragmented and incomplete. I recognized that there were backstories and events that needed to be fleshed out. So I decided to write a narrative with two views. One would be a close-up that followed the evolving friendship of two human rights activists. The other would be a wider angle that placed them on the historical stage during the Great Depression, World War II, McCarthyism, and the Cold War, and the civil and women’s rights movements of the twentieth century.
The greatest challenge was to keep Pauli Murray and E. R. in focus, and to zoom out, where necessary, to other people and events. This was not an easy task. Franklin Roosevelt, who was the catalyst for the first letter Murray wrote to the White House, could have easily, by virtue of his personality and role as president, taken the spotlight.
Each of your subjects possessed a complicated temperament and led a full life of extraordinary complexity, adversity, and accomplishment; both women were avid writers; you must have read through enormous amounts of material. Can you share a story about your research?
I knew that the campaign to save the life of Odell Waller, a young black sharecropper sentenced to death for the fatal shooting of his white landlord and employer, Oscar Davis, was a turning point in the personal lives and friendship of Pauli Murray and Eleanor Roosevelt. The court records, transcripts, letters, photographs, newspaper accounts, published and unpublished memoirs were housed in four states and the District of Columbia. What I learned early on was that Waller was convicted by all-white jury of men who had paid the poll tax, and that there were serious questions about the fairness of his trial. Pauli Murray, who had been hired as field secretary by the Workers Defense League, which handled Waller’s appeal, was involved in every aspect of Waller’s case. She functioned as advance woman, press secretary, principal fund-raiser, and liaison between the League and the Waller family. When the appeal was lost and the state of Virginia executed Waller, Murray’s sank into depression. She would channel her disappointment and anger into a career as a civil rights lawyer and activist.
I was surprised to learn how profoundly Eleanor Roosevelt was affected by the Waller case. Although she never met Waller, she worked relentlessly behind the scenes, funneling information about the case from Murray to the president and other opinion-makers. After Waller was sentenced to death, the first lady pressured the president into writing the governor of Virginia and urging that he grant clemency. She also went to see the governor and made a personal appeal of her own. And the night before Waller’s execution, she begged Franklin Roosevelt in a telephone conversation to intervene.
Political constrains made it difficult for E. R. to vent her frustration in protest letters or demonstrations, as Murray did. Still, the first lady spoke out where she could. To a correspondent who took issue with her sympathy for Waller, E. R. wrote, “Times without number Negro men have been lynched or gone to their death without due process of law. No one questions Waller’s guilt, but they question the system which led to it.” I learned from the memoir of an African American maid in the White House that the first lady was grieving behind closed doors. Her pain, like Murray’s, gave way to anger. “If this were a white man,” she told her secretary Malvina Thompson, “he would have gotten a small sentence or life at most. It’s one more case of racial injustice.”
Murray knew that E. R. was sympathetic to Waller’s cause, but it would be nearly a decade before she knew how hard the first lady had fought, agonized, and grieved over her inability to save Waller’s life. This case set the stage for E.R.’s activism in the post-White House years. It also moved their budding relationship toward a friendship characterized by honesty, trust, empathy, mutual respect, acceptance, a commitment to hearing the other’s point of view, pleasure in each other’s company, and the ability to pick up where they left off, irrespective of the miles that had separated them or the time lapsed.
Both women faced sexism at every turn, and clearly sexism persists. Have we at least progressed in pursuing and valuing women’s history in general and Africa American women’s history in particular since you cofounded SAGE in 1986?
There is, for sure, greater appreciation of and attention to women’s history and contributions generally, though women of color are still inadequately studied, written about, and appreciated. Countless readers, including African American women, have told me that they can’t believe that they didn’t learn about Pauli Murray in American history courses.
Despite her contributions to civil rights, Murray never received the NAACP Spingarn Medal, and until recently has been little more than a footnote in major accounts of African American history. This is, as she believed, in large measure about sexism. On the other hand, too few women’s rights activists know that Pauli Murray was a cofounder of the National Organization for Women, played a key role in the battle to preserve sex as a protected category in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, or that she was the first African American woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest. My hope is that The Firebrand and the First Lady will encourage readers to keep the legacy of women’s human rights activism alive for future generations.