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Carl Sferrazza Anthony: Michelle Obama, First Ladies and African-American History

[Mr. Anthony is Historian of the National First Ladies Library.]

Last week, when Michelle Obama invited several local Washington school groups to the White House for Black History Month, she used her unique podium as the first African-American First Lady to mention some of her husband's predecessors. She mentioned, for example, Lyndon Johnson who signed the Civil Rights Act in that very same room a half-century earlier, when the current First Lady was herself but a nine-month year old child.

The more hidden aspects of African-American history in the White House, however, have to deal with presidential wives and while they did not affect policy as did their husbands, their words and deeds had both a symbolic and tangible power.

Since the Obama Inauguration and continuing with the Lincoln Bicentennial, there's been intense focus on the political strategy of the Great Emancipator to end slavery by signing the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. In contrast, one key Lincoln advisor had no ambivalence about abolishing slavery even before it was politically expedient, and saw it first and foremost as an issue of human rights, imploring the president to see it the same way and enlisted nationally-recognized abolitionist leaders like Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner to convince Lincoln to that end. That advisor was -- the First Lady, Mary Todd Lincoln.

Whatever else might be said about her lavish spending in wartime, her erratic behavior, her faith in spiritualism and mediums, there were few powerful women in mid-19th century America who more vigorously pressed the case first for abolition and then for the education, housing and welfare of freed African-American slaves than did Mrs. Lincoln, daughter of slave-owner, granddaughter of a secret Underground Railroad facilitator.

As February's Black History Month gives way to Women's History Month in March, Michelle Obama will find richer tales to tell students that combine both studies from her own predecessors, rather than from her husband's.

More than a dozen years before Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, the former First Lady Louisa Catherine Adams had passionately enmeshed herself in the abolition of slavery, seeing a direct connection to the limitation of legal rights and property laws that had become institutionalized against women by the 1820's. She circulated abolitionist literature and petitions, aided her husband (then serving in Congress) as he made the case for freedom of those seized from the famous Amistad slave ship, and was a liaison between him and the famous abolitionist Grimke Sisters. Even obscure wives of Presidents who failed to slow slavery made their cases: Abigail Fillmore correctly warned her husband that signing the Fugitive Slave Bill would destroy his career, and Jane Pierce pushed her husband to release abolitionists imprisoned during the "Bloody Kansas" crisis, when they crossed into Kansas-Nebraska territory seeking to prevent slavery from spreading there.

During Reconstruction, several First Ladies followed the lead of Mary Lincoln, who made the Contraband Relief Society (which provided housing, employment and education for freed slaves) the focus of her latter tenure. Lucy Hayes, for example, expended much of her public capital on schools and colleges that provided higher education to young African-American women. Frances Cleveland's primary charity was an organization that gave shelter and care for abandoned and orphaned African-American children in Washington, D.C.

In the early twentieth century, numerous First Ladies took steps to enlarge social equity of the races.

Nellie Taft created West Potomac Park in 1909 as a setting for free public concerts, with her vision of a sort of American "democracy park," based on Manila's Luneta Park concerts, where she was heartened by the coming together of all races and classes. She hired Boston Conservatory graduate and musician Walter Loving, an African-American, to conduct her first concert there. In the White House, she appointed Major Arthur Brooks, an African American major who had served in the Spanish-American War, to handle all personal financial transactions for the President, and the first African-American ushers, who were the highly visible first faces seen by visitors and guests.

Florence Harding prevented the encroachment of racism in the Republican Party; when she learned of a party appointment of someone she suspected of, and confirmed to be harboring racist views, she insisted it be rescinded. When the person sought to complain to the President, Florence Harding refused to facilitate a grievance "of this tone." When she invited classes of female students to the White House as a reward for achieving high school graduation, she made sure to include students from the largely African-American Dunbar High School.

Despite her anticipation of some backlash from segregationists, Lou Hoover made a conscious decision in June of 1929 to invite Chicago congressional wife Jessie DePriest to a traditional tea. What made headlines was the fact that Mrs. DePriest was African-American. Mrs. Hoover was censured by the Texas legislature, and several southern states passed resolutions of condemnation. Reviled in editorials, receiving hundreds of pieces of hate mail, many publicly called for the First Lady to apologize. She refused to do so.

In the Fifties and Sixties, three consecutive First Ladies made both overt and covert statements supporting civil rights.

Despite the fact that Mamie Eisenhower was neither a political activist nor one involved in policy, she viewed equal rights for African-Americans simply in human terms. When she revived the Easter Egg Roll in 1953 (suspended during World War II), she made certain it was racially integrated, despite the fact that integration was still considered legal in Washington. When the first world leader of African origin, the President of Haiti, made a state visit to the White House, she insisted that he was accorded all full protocol honors. A fan of African-American spiritual music (she was one of the few white people to attend a Griffith Stadium gospel performance by Elder Michaux, and often asked Mahalia Jackson to her annual birthday parties) and subscriber to the local Afro-American News paper, she was stunned that anyone would deny children their right to a public education because of their race, and vigorously defended her husband's decision to send federal troops to ensure the 1957 integration of Little Rock High School.

Two months before the 1963 March on Washington and as the debate on school racial integration raged, Jackie Kennedy publicly released a photograph of her daughter's White House kindergarten class to the media, showing the president's child with fellow students that included the son of Andrew Hatcher, the assistant press secretary - an African-American. Encountering bomb threats, vicious protest signs and chants, Lady Bird Johnson made the Civil Rights Act of 1964 the centerpiece of her stump speech as she made a whistlestop tour of southern states during LBJ's campaign that year, declaring that racism hurt not only blacks but whites and that without full integration, the South would always be seen as a "stepchild" by the rest of the nation.

No First Lady took on racism and supported the right to full equality of African-Americans more decisively than did Eleanor Roosevelt. Knowing it would not only stir debate but make a definitive statement, she wanted newspapers to print pictures of her hugging African-American activist Mary McLeod Bethune and of her being escorted by two black male Howard University students into an event there. She willingly stood against even the President to call for Congressional passage of anti-lynching laws. During World War II, she visited American troops both black and white, and called for the integration of the U.S. Armed Forces.

Perhaps no single act to strike at racism committed by a First Lady had as emotional an impact, however, as when Mrs. Roosevelt resigned from the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1939, in reaction to their refusing to rent their auditorium for a concert by African-American contralto singer Marian Anderson.

The upshot was that Anderson was permitted by the Roosevelt Administration's Interior Department to perform a public concert on Easter morning on the open steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The concert and Eleanor Roosevelt's role in it are the subject of a March 14 performance, "The Voice of the American Soul," at the National First Ladies Library in Canton, Ohio (go to www.firstladies.org for information). In fact, the 1938 concert forever established the Lincoln Memorial as a spiritual base for civil rights related public events in the decades to come.

Michelle Obama, like most Americans will unlikely associate Black History with First Ladies. March being Women's History Month, however, there's a four week extension to disseminate it.
Read entire article at Huffington Post (Blog)