Ralph Bunche already was attracting notice in the 1930s: He had been valedictorian of the UCLA class of 1927 and earned a master’s degree from Harvard and a Ph.D. from Howard. His early studies focused on colonialism; his years at Howard gave him what his biographer calls “his full sense of the interplay of politics, race and history.”
This work drew Bunche to the League of Nations, where he studied its work in Africa, traveling to the continent himself for the first time in 1932. Gently prodded by Howard’s iconic president, Mordecai Johnson, to recognize racial problems closer to home, Bunche participated in the field work of Gunnar Myrdal and contributed to that scholar’s landmark treatise, “An American Dilemma,” published in 1944. It was in the course of that work that Bunche, in May 1940, brashly sent off a note to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, requesting the opportunity to speak with her. She agreed. Bunche came to Washington the following week.
In this exclusive excerpt from his new, critically acclaimed biography of Bunche, UCLA law professor Kal Raustiala recounts the fateful meeting between Bunche and the formidable first lady at the White House that spring day — and what it portended for the future.
Ralph Bunche arrived at the White House by cab on May 15, 1940. Hopping out of the car, he announced to the liveried doorman that he was there to see Eleanor Roosevelt. Bunche had written to Mrs. Roosevelt twelve days before requesting a meeting; surprisingly, she invited him to lunch. The meeting was part of his final research for the American Dilemma project on race relations. As he explained in his letter to the First Lady, he was seeking her input on a project that was “strictly a scholarly one,” though he rightly surmised it would have broader impact in a world in which “racial theories and hatreds assume increasing prominence.”
Bunche entered the Red Room of the White House, taking in the large paintings of Theodore Roosevelt and Grover Cleveland. A strong breeze flowed through an open door, ruffling the heavy red drapes. He had arrived early, and as he waited he thought about the fact that it was, as he put it, considered “so much more significant that a Negro would be sitting in the Red Room waiting for lunch, than should a white person.” Indeed, he was unsure whether Eleanor Roosevelt knew he was Black when she issued her invitation. (She did not, he discovered, but right away she told him it made no difference to her.)
Eventually Mrs. Roosevelt walked in, saying immediately, “How do you do, Mr. Bunche?” and extending her hand. The two stepped out to the South Portico, where a table had been set. As the May sun shone, they sat together, chatting informally over their chicken salads, sliced tomatoes, and cornbread. “I don’t believe I have interviewed anyone about whose sincerity I am more impressed,” Bunche later said of the First Lady.
Over the next hour and a half, Bunche and Roosevelt discussed race and relations in America, but also the situation in Europe and the looming perils of Nazi Germany. Just days before their lunch, German forces had invaded Belgium, the Netherlands, and France. They both shared a deep concern about the Nazi threat. The war in Europe was growing in intensity, and Bunche thought that Nazism, with its unrelenting focus on racial hierarchy and fetishization of Nordic imagery and traits, was clearly ominous for Black people. Eleanor Roosevelt agreed. She also though that the dire situation abroad might help push Congress to take bold steps toward racial justice at home, in order to “present a united front against the Nazi menace.” Interestingly, she intimated to him that the allied states had already made feelers to Hitler for peace and had been turned down. The situation appeared very bleak.
In the months that followed their White House lunch, Eleanor Roosevelt and Ralph Bunche continued to correspond. Over the ensuing years the two would talk and meet often: on the Queen Mary, en route to London for the opening session of the United Nations in 1946; at a black-tie dinner at the Waldorf Astoria in 1949; and on Roosevelt’s radio show in 1950, shortly after Bunche’s Nobel Peace Prize was announced. He would even appear on her short-lived PBS talk show in 1960, “Prospects for Mankind.” Roosevelt, a champion of human rights in the postwar years who played an important role in crafting the landmark 1948 UN Declaration on Human Rights, seemed to find him a stimulating and likeable interlocutor. He in turn found Eleanor Roosevelt, despite her fame and (indirect) power, to be approachable and engaging.
Bunche’s trip to the White House that May afternoon was his first brush with the very apex of American power. It would not be his last—nor would it be his last meal at the White House. In May 1940 he was still deeply invested in his academic career at Howard University. He had devoted enormous effort in the preceding years to his research for the Carnegie book project, but he was also working on his continuing passion: the future of Africa and the rolling back of European empire. Bunche was writing at a blistering pace, and he was already an academic success and someone who had a high profile at Howard.
As the 1940s dawned, the threat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan posed to world order led President Roosevelt, cognizant that the US would eventually enter the war, to create the Office of the Coordinator of Information. Roosevelt and his national security team wanted to better analyze incoming intelligence about the progress of the war. This new federal bureau would soon grow and morph into the famed Office of Strategic Services; after the war was over, it was reorganized and renamed the Central Intelligence Agency.
In the Summer of 1941, almost exactly a year after his White House lunch with Eleanor Roosevelt, the new Office of the Coordinator of Information began seeking an Africa specialist. Few Americans had expertise on the continent, which had now become an important front in the rapidly expanding war. Earlier that year, Germany had created the Afrika Korps, and the North Africa campaign of the war had taken the battle to Libya and Egypt. Many feared that British and French colonial possessions would be targeted next. Germany, unlike the allied democracies, had no territories in Africa, having lost them as part of the peace settlement after the First World War. German leaders deeply resented the loss of their African empire and sought to regain a foothold—or more—on the continent. The Roosevelt administration needed a plan. Faculty at Harvard, asked to propose a suitable Africa expert for the new intelligence bureau, suggested Ralph Bunche of Howard University.
Excerpted from The Absolutely Indispensable Man: Ralph Bunche, the United Nations, and the Fight to End Empire, by Kal Raustiala, published by Oxford University Press. © Kal Raustiala 2022. Used with permission.
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