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“perhaps the best place to begin is with the Jews and colored people”: Eleanor Roosevelt responds to an idea for promoting better relations between Jews and Gentiles
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“There is no doubt that there is a need for improving the understanding and co-operation between the various races which make up the U.S.A., and perhaps the best place to begin is with the Jews and colored people”

ELEANOR ROOSEVELT. Typed Letter Signed, to Prudence B. Anderson, February 15, 1941. On White House stationery, with original envelope, and 3 page retained carbon copy of Anderson’s letter to which this responds. 1 p.

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Prudence B. Anderson wrote to the First Lady proposing boards of conciliation to help resolve local disputes between Jews and Gentiles. Although Anderson admits that “Morals and friendship - and understanding - can never be legislated,” she believes that such boards could be places where “grievances could be aired and rectified…instead of smoldering into race hatred and dissention between American citizens.” She specifically asked whether she thought Secretary of Commerce Jesse H. Jones (1874-1956) could be persuaded to fund such boards consisting of “representative members of all races comprising such community.

Eleanor Roosevelt was a staunch advocate for equal rights, whether women’s rights, international human rights, or civil rights for African Americans. As First Lady, Roosevelt toured the nation, witnessing the effects of the Great Depression on rural areas. In one area, she pressured the Subsistence Homestead Administration to allow African Americans into Arthurdale, a planned community designed to create economic self-sufficiency. Her efforts failed, highlighting the depths of institutional racism in the United States. Roosevelt lobbied for civil rights inside her husband’s administration and to the general public via radio and print media. She fought against lynching and segregation, even resigning her membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution when they barred black opera singer Marian Andersen from performing in Constitution Hall. Instead, Roosevelt arranged for Andersen to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Despite her efforts, segregation was the norm in many early New Deal programs, as well as the armed services during the war. American anti-Semitism surged during the Great Depression and lead up to World War II.

Eleanor Roosevelt was prescient in pushing for better understanding and working relationships between the Jewish and African American communities. Though it took time, leaders of both groups joined in an effective movement for racial equality. The “golden age of cooperation” culminated in the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Martin Luther King Jr. said in 1965, “How can there be anti-Semitism among Negroes when our Jewish friends have demonstrated their commitment to the principle of tolerance and brotherhood not only in the form of sizable contributions, but in many other tangible ways, and often at great personal sacrifice…It would be impossible to record the contribution that the Jewish people have made toward the Negro’s struggle for freedom—it has been so great.” As many Jews transitioned to middle-class and upper-middle-class status, the Black Power movement grew, and anti-Semitism among African Americans grew more pronounced, the Jewish and African American coalition unraveled.

Complete Transcript


                                                                        February 15, 1941

My dear Miss Anderson:

            I doubt very much if you could interest Mr. Jones in your suggestion, but there is no harm in trying, particularly as I know of no one at present who is anxious to contribute to any new ideas.

            There is no doubt that there is a need for improving the understanding and co-operation between the various races which make up the U.S.A., and perhaps the best place to begin is with the Jews and colored people; but it seems difficult to do in the way you suggest unless it could be done on a voluntary basis.

                                                                        Very sincerely yours,

                                                                        Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962) was born in New York City. She was tutored privately and attended an English finishing school from 1899 to 1902. In 1905, she married her distant cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt, and they had six children, one of whom died as an infant. She actively supported her husband’s political ambitions, campaigning for him, and representing him when he was Governor of New York (1929-1932) and President of the United States (1933-1945). She redefined the position of First Lady into a much more activist one with a heavy traveling, speaking, and writing schedule. Her syndicated newspaper column, “My Day,” reached millions with her views on many issues, and she continued it for more than a decade after leaving the White House. After Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death, President Truman appointed Eleanor Roosevelt as the first U.S. Representative to the United Nations, where she served from 1947 to 1953. She also served as the first chair of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed her as the first chair of the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women.

Prudence Burrows Anderson (b. 1901) was born in Texas and married Frield E. Anderson (1894-1962) in 1921 in Tillman, Oklahoma, where he was a cotton buyer. By 1930, he was an advertising salesman, and they lived in Los Angeles. By 1940, they were divorced. She lived with her seven-year-old daughter in Beverly Hills, and worked as a secretary to Jewish film score composer Louis Silvers (1889-1954).

Partial Transcript of carbon copy of Anderson’s letter to Roosevelt, February 4, 1941

            “To preface what I am going to say I would like to quote from a letter which I wrote to Walter Winchell on April 20, 1938:

For eight years my work has been in, with and for the motion picture industry. Here I have been able to overcome every prejudice known to a Southerner – and that is plenty!

I have been with Mr. Louis Silvers for the past three years. I make this statement only as a matter of identification for, as you know, I could not last that long with him if I were too stupid or fickle. Now, that you know that I am not just another person in Hollywood with crack-pot ideas I will tell you what I really want…

I would like to make a nation wide appeal through your broadcast, or column, to all non-Jews to lend a hand in aiding the United Jewish Welfare Fund.

I am not a Jew. I am not pro-Jew, Pro-German, or pro-anything except, possibly pro-justice. But I do know that if the non-Jewish population of America were to open their hearts in response to this need without being asked it would mean a great deal more than any amount of money subscribed. It would mean that our minds and hearts are not poisoned by hatred and propaganda. Our bigness of vision and action has always been our salvation and it will eventually be the salvation of the world. <2>

…I have listened to you long enough to depend upon your capacity for lending a hand to bring about and solidify co-operative friendship between people and nations. While this may not mean a lot to begin with I do believe that it will be the means of starting a wave of constructive thinking and action. What do you think?”

Mr. Winchell answered that he had made this appeal.

But now we both know that the beginning was too small and that it has not been followed with enough nation wide co-operative effort to stem the tied of hatred and race prejudice that is taking hold in our own free country.

Each day I hear of someone who wants to cancel an account because the owner is a Jew - or that the Jewish owner has laid off some Gentile employee and replaced same with a Jewish refugee. On the other hand some Jewish person lamenting that they are being persecuted. There is definitely a basis for both contentions - a basis that can still be removed before it takes on a too destructive proportion.

I have spoken to several wealthy and influential Jews who take the position that human nature is human nature and such people will find fault no matter what is said and done. There are others who claim that the Jews still need a lesson, etc. etc. However, I am sure you are familiar with all these claims and counterclaims.

Morals and friendship - and understanding - can never be legislated. But since communities are made up of groups of individuals and the nation is made up of communities it occured to me that it would be well to interest communities and forming conciliation boards whereby such grievances could be aired and rectified. Points of difference could be settled by the conciliation board, instead of smoldering into race hatred and dissention between American citizens. With the help of a National Advisory Board or Committee each community could select and support its own board - such selection to be from representative members of all races comprising such community. <3>

Do you think I could interest Jesse Jones in financing the cost of establishing such conciliation boards in the various communities? After the initial expense of establishing the different units and the cost of contacting the newspapers and seeking their cooperation, etc. etc. the project, if really worthwhile, would be self-sustaining.

The element of time is important and, to me, the preventative measure is more important than the curative.

I hope that I have not made the whole thing sound fuzzy and vague. The need is great and I would hate to bungle the idea. It is not so incredible that a situation like this should arise as it is that we should stick our heads in the sand and ignore it. Do you think Mr. Jones is the proper person to approach? If so, I have one advantage – or maybe it isn’t – but I am a native Texan – and mighty proud of it too!