Dear Mrs. Roosevelt Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

On July 27, 1938, late in the Great Depression, a young Connecticut woman known only as W. B. wrote a letter to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962). W. B. asked Roosevelt for her assistance in finding employment for her father and financing her own room and board in Chicago so that she could attend Moody Theological College. Missives such as hers were common during the Great Depression; many children and young adults sought the help of Roosevelt, who became well known for her charitable initiatives during her husband's time in office. As a young African American woman, W. B. had even fewer opportunities for financial relief than most poverty-stricken young people, and Roosevelt, who supported civil rights for African Americans, was a symbol of hope. However, the sheer number of people requesting Roosevelt's assistance prevented the First Lady from helping most of them, and on August 2, an assistant known as M. L. T. wrote to W. B. to tell her that her requests could not be granted.

Summary Overview

On July 27, 1938, late in the Great Depression, a young Connecticut woman known only as W. B. wrote a letter to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962). W. B. asked Roosevelt for her assistance in finding employment for her father and financing her own room and board in Chicago so that she could attend Moody Theological College. Missives such as hers were common during the Great Depression; many children and young adults sought the help of Roosevelt, who became well known for her charitable initiatives during her husband's time in office. As a young African American woman, W. B. had even fewer opportunities for financial relief than most poverty-stricken young people, and Roosevelt, who supported civil rights for African Americans, was a symbol of hope. However, the sheer number of people requesting Roosevelt's assistance prevented the First Lady from helping most of them, and on August 2, an assistant known as M. L. T. wrote to W. B. to tell her that her requests could not be granted.

Defining Moment

Following the stock market crash of October 1929, the United States entered the Great Depression, the worst financial downturn in the nation's history. Throughout the 1930s, numerous Americans lost their jobs and were unable to find new ones, and a significant portion of the population faced extreme poverty. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, elected in 1932, introduced numerous economic initiatives in the hope of lowering unemployment, providing assistance to needy Americans, and revitalizing the American economy. His wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, likewise worked to help the American people and became widely known for her activism, particularly through the publication of her newspaper column, “My Day.”

As a central figure championing the welfare of the young and impoverished, Roosevelt attracted the attention of many disadvantaged people, who saw her as accessible and easy to relate to. Over the course of the decade, young people from across the United States wrote to Roosevelt, asking for help paying for clothing, medicine, and other necessities. Despite Roosevelt's commitment to those living in poverty, the cost of granting hundreds of such requests was too high, and she was generally unable to help those who wrote to her.

In addition to her concern for the welfare of the nation's poor, Roosevelt was widely known as a supporter of African American civil rights. Racial discrimination remained prevalent during the 1930s, and financial assistance for African Americans affected by the Depression was very limited. To make matters worse, African Americans who sought to improve their lives and overcome poverty often faced challenges that their white counterparts did not. In the case of W. B., who wrote to Roosevelt in 1938, the college she hoped to attend accepted African American students, but did not allow them to live in the school's dormitories. Instead, black students were forced to find outside accommodations, the cost of which could be prohibitive. Writing to the First Lady, who was known to be friendly toward African Americans, might have been seen as the best hope an individual had of obtaining financial assistance.

Author Biography

Little is known about W. B., as she, like many of the people who wrote to Roosevelt seeking financial assistance, insisted that the First Lady keep her identity private. She was born and raised in Old Saybrook, a coastal town in southern Connecticut. W. B. graduated from Old Saybrook High School in June of 1935 and then completed an extra year, ultimately leaving school in June 1936. Those dates suggest that she was likely born around 1917 or 1918. Her letter did not note her immediate family's size; however, she mentioned that her father had sixteen years of work experience but was unable to find a job and that she had tried to find work herself but lacked the necessary experience. W. B. hoped to study theology at Moody Theological College (now the Moody Bible Institute) in Chicago, Illinois, after which she wanted to work as a missionary or a choir singer.

Document Analysis

W. B.'s letter to Roosevelt begins by announcing her race and that she lives in poverty, immediately establishing her financial situation and suggesting the discrimination she faced. Her first request is not for herself but for her father, who, by 1938, had been out of work for two years. Asking Roosevelt to help find her father a job, W. B. provides the information Roosevelt would need to do so, mentioning her father's lines of work and his many years of experience. This demonstrates the faith W. B. had in Roosevelt, who she seems to have believed could help if given the necessary details.

It is only after making the request for her father that W. B. begins her own plea for help. Asking for assistance in paying for college, she assures the First Lady that she has the tenacity and iron will necessary to complete a college education. She explains that although her chosen institution does not charge tuition, she must pay for housing, as African American students were not permitted to live in the school's dormitories. Unable to afford the costs herself, W. B. asks Roosevelt to lend her the necessary funds, promising to pay her back after graduating.

As in her first request, W. B. is methodical in the information she provides. All of the necessary costs, including incidentals and room and board, are itemized. She asks for the bare minimum to get by during her time at college, and her only other request is for eight dollars, to be used to fix her teeth so that she can get her “doctors certificate in and checked by Moody College” prior to attending. It is important to note that W. B. requests a loan rather than a gift. In doing so, she displayed the seriousness of her intentions, which she hoped would be taken into account by Roosevelt. In a postscript to the letter, W. B. assures the First Lady that her attempts at obtaining a loan from a bank had failed, so contacting Roosevelt was truly her only remaining option.

W. B.'s letter suggests that she had significant faith in Roosevelt's ability to help her and her family. Although the idea of asking the First Lady for money may seem unrealistic to twenty-first-century readers, the actions of W. B. and the countless young people like her speak to the desperation of many Americans during the Depression, as well as to Roosevelt's reputation as a compassionate and charitable public figure. Although Roosevelt was unable to grant either of W. B.'s requests, the letter did not go unanswered. An administrative officer known as M. L. T. (possibly Malvina Thompson, Roosevelt's assistant) responded on August 2, 1938. M. L. T.'s letter explains why Roosevelt could not help W. B. and suggests that she contact the National Youth Administration for college assistance. M. L. T. adds that W. B.'s father should register with the United States Employment Service. These suggestions are said to have come from Roosevelt herself, solidifying the First Lady's reputation as a figure eager to help those in need, even when she could not do so personally.

Essential Themes

W. B.'s letter to Roosevelt is characterized by several key themes that were common in letters sent to the First Lady during the Depression. First, W. B. sought to emphasize her need while making it clear that she was only contacting Roosevelt as a last resort, perhaps to prevent those reading the letter from considering her lazy or presumptuous. Her postscript to the letter, which discusses her attempts to secure a loan from a bank, demonstrates that she had tried to obtain the money through more traditional methods prior to contacting Roosevelt. Like many petitioners, W. B. seems to have had a strong sense of pride. She was interested not in charity but in a loan, and she insisted that she would succeed in college and pay Roosevelt back once she had finished her studies. Along with her sense of pride came a need for privacy. W. B. noted that she lived in a small town and would face humiliation and harassment if the other residents knew about her letter, so she asked that her name and letter not be published or publicized. This impassioned plea was repeated again in the letter's postscript, further underscoring her need for privacy. This desire for privacy was a common component in the letters sent to Roosevelt by young people who wanted to help their struggling families without injuring the family's pride. W. B., in doing likewise, sought to make clear that she was not looking for notoriety in seeking help. Instead, she simply wanted to better herself and help her family survive the Great Depression.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Cohen, Robert. “Dear Mrs. Roosevelt: Cries for Help from Depression Youth.” Social Education 60.5 (1996): 271–76. Print.
  • Cohen, Robert, ed. Dear Mrs. Roosevelt: Letters from Children of the Great Depression. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2002. Print.
  • “Dear Mrs. Roosevelt.” New Deal Network. Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Inst., 2003. Web. 10 June 2014.
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