Our national fascination with Amelia Earhart (1897-1937)—I think you could make a case that she’s the most famous 20th century American woman—is entirely understandable. Even before she flew off into the unknown just a few weeks shy of her fortieth birthday, she was a hugely unique and compelling figure who also happened to live at precisely the right time: that era of the first pilots, of the Red Baron and Charles Lindbergh (one of Earhart’s nicknames was “Lady Lindy”) and Howard Hughes, of those terrifyingly fragile-looking planes making their way across the continent and the oceans. And beyond the mythologies, of Earhart’s individual mystery and of those high-flying national figures in general, she was also a genuinely complex and interesting American, one whose identity can help us AmericanStudiers think about technology and progress, the aftermath of World War I and the lead up to World War II, gender and identity, and many other topics besides.
Yet I’d still make the case that Earhart’s final journey has some serious competition for the most significant flight featuring an American woman, and at the very least that her competitor’s flight, like her competitor herself, deserves a lot more attention in our national narratives and memories. In March 1941, Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962), whose husband Franklin was just beginning his third term as President under the very dark cloud of the ongoing Second World War, visited the Tuskegee Air Corps Advanced Flying School in Tuskegee, Alabama. Self-taught pilot Charles Anderson had founded the school for African American civilian pilot training two years earlier, and was facing in his attempts to support and extend its efforts all of the discrimination and lack of funding and the like that we might expect in the depths of the Jim Crow South and in an era when the military itself (like so many organizations) was fully segregated. And so when the nation’s First Lady not only visited the school, but despite the protests of her Secret Service agents requested a private flight with Anderson and spent over an hour in the sky with him, the event took on a literal and a symbolic significance that is difficult to overstate. Nor was this a one-off for Roosevelt, as she facilitated a White House visit for Anderson and others later that year where they successfully lobbied for more military support and collaboration for Tuskegee.
The thousands of pilots who would graduate from Tuskegee over the next few years and become part of the Tuskegee Airmen, and what that community meant for both America’s war efforts and toward President Truman’s 1948 desegregation of the armed forces, is a rich and powerful AmericanStudies topic in its own right, and one to which I hope to return in a future post. But Roosevelt’s March 1941 flight likewise serves as a particularly salient single linchpin for my latest nomination for the Hall of American Inspiration. While I don’t doubt that Roosevelt’s name is familiar to most Americans, I nonetheless believe that, as has been the case for all of my nominees, our narratives greatly underrate the striking breadth and depth of her contributions to American and world identity and history: from the nearly 100 columns she wrote for national magazines during her years in the White House to her service as one of America’s first Delegates to the UN General Assembly, her pioneering work as the inaugural chair of the UN Commission on Human Rights (work that culminated in the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” a document that Roosevelt called “the international Magna Carta of all mankind”) to her chairing (the year before she died) of President Kennedy’s groundbreaking Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, and in many other arenas and ways alongside these efforts (including her work throughout the 1920s on behalf of the Women’s Trade Union League), Roosevelt was for more than three decades one of America’s brightest lights and most powerful voices.
Amelia Earhart is largely an a-political figure, one whose appeal has (or at least can have) nothing to do with politics or with narratives that can divide as well as unite Americans; I know that it is and might always be impossible to say the same of Eleanor Roosevelt, or of any First Lady. Yet a moment like that 1941 flight with Anderson has nothing whatsoever to do with politics, and the more we can remember and highlight such moments, and the inspiring Americans who made them happen, the more our national community can likewise take flight. More this weekend, another tribute and work in progress post.
PS. Three links to start with:
1) Good piece on the Tuskegee Airmen, including Roosevelt’s role: http://web.archive.org/web/20070713072733/http://www.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/tuskegee.pdf
2) The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project: http://www.gwu.edu/~erpapers/
3) OPEN: What do you think? And any nominees for the Hall?
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