September 2008

Project Sheds Light on Eleanor Roosevelt’s Legacy

Allida Black, director and editor of GW’s Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project and research professor of history and international affairs, with some of Roosevelt’s books and pictures


In a suite on the fourth floor of Old Main, the seven-member staff of the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project is working to ensure that the former first lady is remembered not just as Franklin Roosevelt’s wife but as a formidable advocate for civil rights and social justice in her own right.

“Eleanor is one of the most influential American women of the 20th century,” says Allida Black, director and editor of the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project and research professor of history and international affairs. “She was a tireless advocate of women’s rights, minority rights, and human rights. She helped give us the framework to address the controversial and complex issues of our time.”

The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project was created in 2000 to provide greater access to Roosevelt’s written and audiovisual record, to educate a diverse audience about her role in the human rights movement, and to promote human rights as a topic of historical inquiry and study, according to Black.
Its holdings include 27 books, 8,032 columns, 557 articles, 150 letters, 496 radio programs, 60 television shows, and 3,000 photographs collected from 263 archives in the United States and around the world.

The project recently received an award for $363,563 from the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences and, for the past eight years, has received grants from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission of the National Archives and the National Endowment for the Humanities. It also is supported by more than 100 individual donors and foundations.

Born in New York in 1884, Roosevelt became involved in social causes at a young age. By the 1920s, major political leaders throughout New York state and the national Democratic Party knew her as a political leader, recognized for her lobbying, public education, and grass-roots organizing skills.

During her 12 years as first lady, Roosevelt advocated for widespread social and economic reform, youth-employment and women’s rights, and spoke out against racism and mistreatment of immigrants. After Roosevelt’s husband’s death in 1945, she became liberalism’s most outspoken advocate, defending organizations dedicated to labor, civil rights, and quality public education, says Black.

In 1945, President Harry Truman appointed Roosevelt to the first American delegation to the United Nations, where she served for seven years as a member of the United Nations Commission on Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Concerns. There she oversaw the drafting and adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the initiation of the Covenants on Political and Civil Rights and Social, Economic and Cultural Rights, and chaired the Human Rights Commission.

Black has been fascinated with Roosevelt since she wrote a dissertation on the former first lady as a doctoral student in GW’s Department of History in the 1990s. “As I read about Eleanor, I realized she had her fingerprints all over the issues I cared about,” Black says. “I wondered why no one really knew about her, and I wanted to set the record straight on what she did and how her work is still applicable today.”

More than 130 undergraduate and graduate students have helped Black and her staff on six projects: publishing five volumes of The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers; creating an electronic edition of Roosevelt’s 7,421 My Day newspaper columns; offering training and curriculum ideas for teachers on Roosevelt and her work; briefing elected officials and their staffs on the historical underpinning of human rights; encouraging student research on Roosevelt and human rights; and providing materials to scholars and interested citizens.

Black and her staff have partnered with numerous organizations to spread the word about Roosevelt’s accomplishments. They are working with the White House Historical Association to create the electronic exhibition “My Day at the White House” and develop curricula tied to the Roosevelts’ life in the nation’s capital. They also curate Eleanor Roosevelt-related exhibitions for the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum and the Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site.

They have trained more than 5,000 primary and secondary school teachers and collegiate faculty through partnerships with the Organization of American Historians, National History Day, and the National Council for History Education, and recently edited the human rights issue of the Organization of American Historians’ Magazine of History. Black and her staff also regularly work with the Women’s Research and Education Institute’s Congressional Fellows Program, congressional aides, nongovernmental organizations, scholars, and human rights activists.

Black has big plans for the future of the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project. She wants to develop a human rights curriculum for students of all ages, create a multidisciplinary human rights concentration at the university, expand project work with Congress and public policy organizations, and coordinate a nationwide discussion about Roosevelt on the 125th anniversary of her birth in 2009.

“I want people to see Eleanor as more than President Roosevelt’s wife,” says Black. “She was a woman governed by compassion and a shrewd political force who refused to abandon hope and risked her life and reputation to build a more democratic and effective world.”

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