The Day Eleanor Roosevelt Visited Maryland State

  • Former First Lady’s commencement speech decried the Cold War

    Saturday, June 1, 2019
    President John T. Williams escorts Eleanor Roosevelt to the Kiah gym

    Fifteen days after the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark 1954 ruling on public school desegregation, a prominent equal rights voice delivered Maryland State College's spring commencement address. 

    If former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt mentioned Brown vs. the (Topeka, Kan.) Board of Education, print journalists who reported on her June 1 visit to Princess Anne didn't mention the topic in their dispatches. 

    Instead, Roosevelt spoke - apparently without notes - about post-World War challenges posed by communism and nuclear war before an audience estimated at 2,000 strong gathered in Kiah gym. 

    “We must struggle to show the world that our form of government can actually function and leave the controls in the hands of the people, thereby giving them greater freedom and greater responsibility,” the local daily newspaper quoted Roosevelt as saying in its next-day edition. 

    “This is an adventurous period in which we live,” the Salisbury Times went on to report in its front-page article. “We have, in scientific (terms), learned how to destroy the world.  The question now is how to develop people who want to live in peace and do not want to destroy the world.” 

    Roosevelt's appearance marked the beginning of a golden age of commencement speakers who appeared at Maryland State during President John Taylor Williams' 23-year tenure.

    Image: Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project, George Washington University

    Distinguished Americans who followed included the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Congressman Adam Clayton Powell of New York, baseball great Jackie Robinson and Thurgood Marshall, who in December 1953 argued the school desegregation case before the Supreme Court some 14 years before President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him to the high court. 

    Roosevelt's appearance at Maryland State was arranged by the Rev. William Tycer Nelson, the campus chaplain and a rural sociology professor who traveled widely and corresponded with such luminaries of his era as Jackie Kennedy, Adlai Stevenson and Richard Nixon. 

    In mid-October 1953, Nelson visited New York City, as he frequently did, according to his daughter Gail, to make an in-person appeal to W. Colston Leigh, president of his eponymous Fifth Avenue talent agency that handled Roosevelt's speaking schedule. 

    An Oct. 29, 1953 letter Leigh wrote to Roosevelt noted he was aware of her commitment to speak at Columbia University in New York on June 2 (1954), adding “I gather you will be around here (on the East Coast) at that time.” 

    Leigh also pointed out the commencement invitation was from “a Negro college” and that it had offered $500 as an honorarium. 

    “If necessary, we will go back to the State and apply for an additional amount,” Leigh's letter reads. 

    The Leigh Bureau of Lectures and Entertainments sent Roosevelt a follow-up letter three days later informing her it mailed a contract to Maryland State, but the correspondence made no further mention of speaking fees. 

    Christy E. Regenhardt, an editor of the Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project at George Washington University, said it was widely known Roosevelt donated what she was paid on the speaking circuit to favorite causes or charities. 

    Roosevelt was in such demand as a speaker, Regenhardt said scholars agree that many of her speeches were delivered without notes because she had her topical message of the day memorized.  A focus of the Roosevelt Papers Project is compiling news reports about her remarks to recapture an accurate record of what she said. 

    Between 1935 and 1962, Roosevelt also penned a syndicated, diary-style column that at the height of its popularity appeared six days a week in 90 newspapers. 

    Her My Day” column from June 3, 1954* described her trip two days earlier to Maryland State: 

    The Eastern Shore is always especially proud of its food and, before I left Princess Anne, I was given a most delicious dinner at the college president's home.  The ham was sliced right though the bone - which is a feat I cannot accomplish with most of the hams I buy!”

    The 4 p.m. commencement ceremony, she noted, took place “on a perfect afternoon.”  The high temperature that Tuesday was in the mid-80s, according to the weather “ear” atop the Salisbury Times' front page. 

    “There was a large audience, some of whom had come from distant states to see their young relatives graduate,” she wrote.  “This is a land-grant college where agriculture, home economics and mechanical arts have a prominent place.  The young men and women who graduated have learned skills (that) will be useful here and also in many parts of the world.

    “And the young faces looking up at me, I felt, were prepared to meet the challenge of usefulness in this complicated world of ours,” she wrote.

    News accounts from that historic day reported that Maryland State awarded 14 Bachelor of Science degrees and 18 Bachelor of Arts degrees.  Additionally, “certificates for the three-year course in trades were conferred on three graduates."

    Gail Nelson Holgate, whose father helped arrange Roosevelt's visit, said she remembers getting dressed in her finest attire to see the First Lady, including white gloves and black patent-leather shoes.

    "I said, 'Introduce me, daddy,'" recalled Holgate, who was 10 years old at the time. The two shook hands, she said, and she procured Mrs. Roosevelt's autograph as a keepsake.

    During the commencement ceremony, the college chorus sang a song inspired by the words of poet John Donne; 

    No man is an island, no man stands alone.”

    “Each man's joy is joy to me; each man's grief is my own.”

    Sam Frank Scales and Harold H. Rivers made history as the first Maryland State graduates to be commissioned as second lieutenants in the U.S. Air Force after participating in the college's fledgling Reserve Officer Training Corps program.  Rivers retired from the Air Force as a lieutenant colonel. 

    For Rivers, Scales and their classmates about to enter a world confronting the realities of the Cold War, Roosevelt offered words of caution. 

    “The hope of equality, the hope of freedom, the hope of justice is a great thing to bring to the peoples in areas all over the world, and is what the United States today is challenged to do,” she said. 


    (*) Eleanor Roosevelt, "My Day, June 3, 1954," The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Digital Edition (2017), accessed 5/31/2019, https://www2.gwu.edu/~erpapers/myday/displaydoc.cfm?_y=1954&_f=md002871.


    EDITOR'S NOTE: Mrs. Roosevelt was a professional acquaintance of Crystal Bird Fauset, the nation's first African-American woman elected to serve in a state legislature (Pennsylvania - 1938) and daughter of Benjamin O. and Portia E. Lovett Bird, the first two leaders of old Princess Anne Academy.  During World War II, Mrs. Fauset was a special assistant with the U.S. Office of Civilian Defense, a federal emergency war agency in the (President Franklin D.) Roosevelt administration.