Eleanor Roosevelt and Detroit

Eleanor Roosevelt exchanges flowers with Geraldine Walker in Detroit

If you follow my Instagram you saw that I recently organized my closet.  I parted with many things but not my high school and college papers.  It was fun to look at them and realize I managed to write exclusively about Imperial Russia, Old Hollywood and the Roosevelts for every class I’ve ever had.  One essay I came across was about Eleanor Roosevelt and the Detroit Riot.  I imagine almost everyone is familiar with the 1968 riot but the riot of 1943 is less well-known.  Since PBS ran a 14 hour documentary on the Roosevelts last week I thought it would be fitting to share an excerpt from my essay below.  I’d also encourage everyone to check out the film.  It’s long but fascinating.  The Roosevelts were a rare breed and transformed the United Sates in ways most people never realize.

A year before the 1943 riot, Mrs. Roosevelt faced accusations of responsibility for another Detroit riot that occurred over integration of a housing project. The Sojourner Truth Housing Project was originally built for black residents, but  complaints by whites caused the government to give the housing project to white Detroiters.  This action upset blacks of the area and letters were sent to Mrs. Roosevelt for assistance. The First Lady criticized the government’s move as “impairing the morale of Negroes who [were] being called on for all-out support of a war for democracy” and encouraged officials to reverse the decision. After pressure from many organizations and individuals the Sojourner Truth Housing was returned to the black community but not without conflict. [1]The National Workers’ League (a Klan-like organizations) from outside of the Detroit neighborhood incited a riot among the Polish-Americans living in the neighborhood and blacks moving into the complex. Two leaders of the organization were indicted for starting the riots but were not brought to trial[2]. A month after the riots black families moved into the housing units under military protection. 

After this first Detroit incident, Eleanor sent frequent messages to her husband warning him about racial tensions.  She encouraged President Roosevelt to speak to the nation about racial divisions but he did not follow her recommendation.[4]The summer of 1943 was rife with racial conflict across the nation but none were as damaging as the Detroit riot. During the war years Detroit was the “Arsenal of Democracy” and an integral site for war production. The creation these manufacturing jobs encouraged the movement of thousands from across the nation particularly from the South. Racial tensions were at the brink in Detroit and barely a week before the riots broke out NAACP activist, Walter White, warned a Detroit audience “that a race riot may break out here at any time.”[5]   He was correct and on Sunday, June 20 a bloody riot broke out on Belle Isle. The riot traveled inland and lasted until late Monday night when federal troops were brought in to dispel the fighting.

The days following the Detroit riots a Jackson, Mississippi newspaper infamously published a criticism of Mrs. Roosevelt that read:
“BLOOD ON HER HANDS: It is blood on your hands, Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt. More than any other person, you are morally responsible for those race riots in Detroit where two dozen were killed and fully 500 were injured in nearly a solid day of street fighting. You have been personally proclaiming and practicing (sic) social equality at the White House and wherever you go, Mrs. Roosevelt. In Detroit, a city noted for the growing impudence and insolence of its negro population, an attempt was made to put your preachments into practice, Mrs. Roosevelt. What followed is now history. Blood on your hands, Mrs. Roosevelt! And the damned spots won’t wash out, either.”[6]
The sentiments of the newspaper were not isolated. Many Americans wrote to Mrs. Roosevelt echoing similar feelings. A writer from Washington, D.C. affirmed the statements of the Jackson articles by writing, “The blood of the dead in Detroit is on your head – and you cannot deny it.” One man from Georgia reprimanded Mrs. Roosevelt for interfering in racial issues and assured her that her work would only end in trouble:
“[I] feel you  unwittingly doing the negro race a great wrong with your ill timed and ill advised social reforms. The northern negro takes you seriously and there will be no end to trouble in the north. The southern negro knows you’ve got a lot to learn but even so it makes him dissatisfied and a poorer worker. As the enclosed article stated the negro will always pay the price”
Another man from Virginia wrote:
“Through a consistent thread of events since 1932 has been completely destroyed in the minds and hearts of many loyal Americas, YOU have been running all over the country sewing seeds of discord and dissension, and such incidents as Detroit, Beaumont, Mobil, ect are the product of your endeavors.”[7]
To the surprise of many Mrs. Roosevelt did not mention the Detroit riots in her “My Day” article, although she alluded to it in her June 22, 1943 column when she wrote: “The domestic scene …. is anything but encouraging ….we do not seem to have learned self-control and obedience to law yet.” [9]Weeks later in July she spoke directly of the racial violence after a riot broke out in Harlem. Of the riotous 1943 summer, Mrs. Roosevelt wrote: “I was sick at heart…over race riots which put us on a par with Nazism which we fight and make one tremble for what human beings may do when they no longer think but let themselves be dominated by their worst emotions.”[10]The Detroit riots were personally difficult for Eleanor Roosevelt to confront because she dedicated herself completely to black advancement in society and the war effort and felt a loss and set-back in both issues. When Pauli Murray denounced President Roosevelt for blaming the rioters for the destruction and not the fundamental issue of racism in a poem and sent it to the White House Mrs. Roosevelt responded with “I am sorry but I understand.”[11]In July 1943 Mrs. Roosevelt acknowledged the blame she received for the Detroit riots and stated that “the stopping of false rumors and promotion of good will would go far towards the avoidance of such uprisings.” The burden carried by Mrs. Roosevelt was a heavy load but her sacrifice did not go unnoticed. 

At the end of July 1943, Walter White, wrote a public letter to Mrs. Roosevelt offering support and understanding. White criticized “the vicious attacks” made against her and wrote:
 “You’re carrying your share – and often far more than your share – gives us faith that some day, somewhere we too shall not be shut out of enjoyment of the fruits of our toil and that we too may taste the privileges as well as the burdens of democracy. You have thus helped us to escape complete despair and we are grateful.”[13]
White’s sentiments spoke strongly for the black community who had for many years viewed Mrs. Roosevelt as one of their strongest allies.

Eleanor Roosevelt did not stop her cries for unity and equality after the riots. On July 24, 1943 in New York she gave “what has been described as the frankest discussion of the race question ever made by the wife of a President,“ when she called for economic opportunity and equality of expression for black Americans[14]. More shocking, was her statement on interracial marriage. Mrs. Roosevelt said the law had no place in that arena and people should choose for themselves who they wanted to marry.[15] 

Mrs. Roosevelt was a lightning rod of controversy during her years as First Lady for many reasons, but the most prominent cause was her advocacy for civil rights for black Americans. She challenged the status quo across the country and particularly upset the white South. The result was false accusations and blame for events such as the Detroit riots. The strength and courage Eleanor Roosevelt displayed by standing up to critics and maintaining her principles, rightfully earned her a place as one of the most influential people in American history.


[1]  Richard Walter Thomas, Life For Us is What We Make It, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992).
[2] Reporting Civil Rights, (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 2003); 40.
[3] Richard Walter Thomas, Life For Us is What We Make It, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992).
[4] PBS American Experience Online. “Eleanor Roosevelt.” http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/eleanor. (accessed March 12, 2008) Transcript of Eleanor Roosevelt American Experience documentary.
[5] Richard Walter Thomas, Life For Us is What We Make It, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992).
[6] Quoted in Cathy D. Knepper ed., Dear Mrs. Roosevelt, (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2004), 323-324.
[7] Letters in Cathy D. Knepper ed., Dear Mrs. Roosevelt, (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2004), 325-326.
[8] Glenn Feldman, Before Brown: Civil Rights an white backlash, (Tuscaloosa, AL: The University of Alabama Press, 2004), 102.
[9] Cathy D Knepper ed, Dear Mrs. Roosevelt, (New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2004), 327.
[10] Eleanor Roosevelt, My Day, (New York: Pharos Books, 1988), 299.
[11]Lynne Olso, Freedom’s Daughters, (New York: Scribner, 2001), 63.
[12] “Mrs. Roosevelt Gives Her Version of Detroit Riots,“ Chicago Defender, July 10 1943, ProQuest Historical Newspapers (accessed March 12, 2008).
[13] Walter White, “People and Places,’” Chicago Defender, July 24, 1943, ProQuest Historical Newspapers (accessed March 12, 2008).
[14] “First Lady Assails Racial Propaganda,“ New York Times, July 24,1943, ProQuest Historical Newspapers (accessed March 12, 2008).
[15] “Mrs. Roosevelt’s Dictum: ‘Give Equal Rights To All,’” Chicago Defender, July 24, 1943, ProQuest Historical Newspapers (accessed March 12, 2008). 

(Photo Source: City University of New York)

One thought on “Eleanor Roosevelt and Detroit

  1. I kept forgetting to ask if you were watching the Roosevelts on PBS…and then I would remember “of course she is.” 🙂

    I enjoyed the series more than I thought I would, to be honest. The bits on Teddy were particularly eye-opening, but Eleanor was also very impressive. What a family!


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