In The Firebrand and the First Lady, scholar Patricia Bell-Scott illuminates the unlikely friendship between two historic American women. Radical civil and women’s rights activist Pauli Murray and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt corresponded for years and swayed one another’s social justice aims and strategies. Their views never converged, but Bell-Scott makes a compelling case that they grew with and toward each other.
“I started out being interested primarily in doing a biography, but then the friendship just drew me in,” Bell-Scott says of her decadeslong quest to capture the relationship and its impact—both on the women and the country.
Murray saw Roosevelt for the first time in 1934 at Camp Tera, a government-sponsored facility for unemployed women. Murray was an indigent resident, and Roosevelt was the camp’s visionary, visiting to confer with residents and ensure the camp was adequately staffed, equipped, and integrated. Twenty-four-years old, malnourished, and suffering from respiratory problems, Murray was exactly the kind of young woman Roosevelt meant the New Deal camp to serve.
Bell-Scott details how, over time, Roosevelt came to know Murray beyond her frailty, as a woman of steely conviction and sharp intellect, one who would not be silent or patient in the face of injustice. The pair often disagreed on the desired pace and aggressiveness of social change yet remained connected and collaborative.
“Their example of a compassionate friendship in which you engage in difficult dialogue that moves you forward, that helps you grow, is really an example we desperately need,” Bell-Scott says. “You hear about so many friendships with public figures that fall by the wayside over policy differences or political issues or personal issues. That they managed to hang in there with each other helped them grow and helped move the nation forward.”
Murray first wrote to Roosevelt in 1938 seeking support for her attempt to enroll as the first black student at the University of North Carolina. The two remained in contact until Roosevelt’s death in 1962. Their rich correspondence grew to include more than 300 letters, notes, and cards containing news clippings, reports, manuscripts, and photographs. They also met face to face through the years at the White House, at Roosevelt’s New York City residences, and at her Hyde Park retreat.
Bell-Scott also directly experienced the force of Murray’s letters when the two briefly corresponded in 1983 about a scholarly journal focused on black women that Bell-Scott was launching. “You need to know some of the veterans of the battle whose shoulders you now stand on,” Murray wrote.
“That made the hairs on my head stand up a little bit,” Bell-Scott says. “It was as if she was pointing her finger in my face. At the time I just remember feeling that she was calling me out to do something, but I really didn’t understand the full breadth of it.”
Bell-Scott accepted Murray’s challenge and masterfully captures the two women’s relationship in The Firebrand and The First Lady,weaving together their correspondence and their comments about one another in other contexts. Her nuanced portrait reveals a dynamic, challenging relationship, built exchange by exchange, year after year.
The account also gives readers a welcome history of Murray, a foremother of the civil and women’s rights movements worthy of greater renown. Murray overcame incredible discrimination—over her race, gender, and sexual orientation—to earn multiple law degrees, lead the fight to preserve sexual discrimination protections within the 1964 Civil Rights Act, found the National Organization of Women, and become the first female African-American Episcopal priest.
Roosevelt didn’t live to see many of the Camp Tera alumna’s triumphs, but Murray credited Roosevelt with lighting the candle of commitment to universal human dignity that Murray, and now Bell-Scott, carried forth.
Maya Payne Smart writes book reviews and musings at MayaSmart.com.